Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Going to Israel Tomorrow

This blog will be out of commission for a while. Linda and I will leave tomorrow for 13 days in Israel. We'll land in Tel Aviv with our friends and co-pastors Josh and Beth Bentley.

We'll travel up the Mediterranean coast, ending at Toberias on the Sea of Galilee. We'll spend three days there exploring, then go for 3 days at the Dead Sea. Then, we'll end up spending 4-5 days in Jerusalem.

For us, this is a trip of a lifetime and we are so excited about going!

I don't know if I'll be making posts from Israel. But I'm sure I'll share some thoughts and experiences when I get back to Monroe.

An additional note: my wife Linda is a Jew, whose mother became a follower of Jesus. Linda as a great student of Judaism. So I think this trip will be especially significant because she'll be in tha land of her biological ancestors. As for me, I'm a follower of Jesus. Jesus was a Jew. All the things I am passionate about in the Bible originate in Israel.

So... shalom!

(I took this picture of an eagle a mile from our house. We have a lot of eagles here in Monroe, Michigan. Today I saw two. One was in a tree right next to the road a mile from us on the river. Someone was standing below the tree looking up at it. I pulled over and tried to get a picture, but it flew and circled over the river.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Northern Illinois University's Nietzschean Killer?

Before he went on his shooting rampage Steven Kazmierczak sent a package to his girlfriend. In the package was: a textbook for her class about serial killers; a package with a gun holster and bullets; a new cell phone that she had told him she wanted; about $100 in cash.; and a copy of Friedrich Nietzsche's book "The Antichrist."

I think that, if one were immersed in and bought into the nihilism and atheism of Nietzsche, it could support the kind of thing Kazmierczak did, especially if Nietzsche were read selectively.

Let us assume Kazmierczak read "The Antichrist." Look at how it begins.

"What is good?--Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is evil?--Whatever springs from weakness.
What is happiness?--The feeling that power increases--that resistance is overcome.
Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency (virtue in the Renaissance sense, virtu, virtue free of moral acid).
The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it.
What is more harmful than any vice?--Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak--Christianity... "

After this follows an extended Nietzsche-style diatribe on the evils of Judeo-Christian religion.

When Nietzsche's madman cried out that God is dead, it's the Judeo-Christian concept he had in mind. The madman was a prophet, and the world was not yet ready for him. Theoretical God-deniers did not understand the moral implications of the death of God; viz., that the metaphysical foundation for their values had been taken from underneath them, and they were now cast adrift to make their own way. Personally, I feel that, were I an atheist, I would find Nietzsche's logic persuasive.

If one reads The Antichrist will one become a killer? No, that doesn't follow. Could a Nietzschean philosophy support what happened at NIU a few days ago? I think so. Because Jesus' ideas of loving one's enemies are seen as "weak," "sick," and "idiotic." (Nietzsche at times seems to admire Christ, separating this from his hatred towards "Christians.") Judeo-Christian ideas of "good" are to be rejected as weak. On Nietzsche's atheism (see above) "good" = "power." But of course, if there is no God.

NOTE: A scholar named Zbigniew Kazmierczak is a member of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Is there any connection here? (See also here.)

Paulos's Inelegant Non-Argument Against Jesus

John Allen Paulos's "Irreligion" contains a chapter on Jesus. I find it so inadequate that, at most, it serves as autobiography.

Paulos is, not surprisingly, unaware of current Jesus-scholarship. Jesus - scholarship is done by scholars who dedicate their lives to studying Jesus, like a mathematician studies and knows mathematics. Paulos is, it seems, a very good mathematician who is unschooled in the serious, academic study of Jesus. Who can study everything, right?

But Paulos "debunks" Jesus, which would be like me debunking some area of his expertise. Put simply, while Paulos seems like a very interesting and fun person (I'l love to have coffee with him), this is a really bad chapter.

Paulos's chapter is called "Remarks on Jesus and Other Figures." He mentions Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Why? It's not entirely clear to me. Paulos expresses skepticism re. our ability to get at the actual historical events and details of Jesus. We find it hard, e.g., to even reconstruct the events of Kennedy's assassination. How much more difficult is it to reconstruct the life of Jesus. This is Paulos's Humean skepticism coming out. He writes: "There is little, if any, external historical evidence for the details presented in the somewhat inconsistent biblical versions of the Crucifixion. Unless we take literally and on faith the New testament accounts of Jesus written many decades afterward (between 70 and 100 C.E.) we simply don't know what happened almost two millenia ago, at least in any but the vaguest ways." Then Paulos says this is part of the reason Dan Brown's The Da Vinci code was such a best seller.

OK. What to do with this? Here's a few thoughts.

1) Read, e.g., Greg Boyd, Richard Bauckham, (and here, re. John) and N.T. Wright for starters, re. the historicity of the synoptic gospels.

2) Watch out when Paulos refers to historical figures such as, e.g., the "evil Caligula." On Humean historical skepticism, how could we say such things? This is the kind of historical analysis that could cause persons to question the Holocaust. (Paulos, to me, is like the person whose only tool is a hammer, this he sees every problem as a nail. His mathematical-probableistic approach to historical studies is severely limited.)

3) Beware of sensationalist writing. Anyone making "remarks" about Jesus who has to bring in Mel Gibson and Dan Brown should be not taken seriously.

4) Watch out for red herrings, such as saying "even if all this were the case, does it not seem hateful, not to mention un-Christian, to blame contemporary Jews?" Well, yes it does.

Paulos says we ought to "put aside the obvious biological absurdities of Jesus' virgin birth and resurrection." This preaches well to the choir. Remember, Paulos confesses to having "an inborn disposition to materialism (in the sense of "matter and motion are the basis of all there is")." So, it seems, Paulos cannot think otherwise. Thus, the historical cases N.T. Wright and others make for the historical plausibility of the resurrection of Jesus could not be true in principle.

As I now look at the blurbs on the back of the book jacket I see the choir singing Paulos's praises, and stand amazed. This book is "another virtuoso performance?" For me this chapter hits a very, very bad note. "No one knows how to dissect an argument better than Paulos?" If that's true, then this chapter shows we're all in deep, deep trouble. Paulos gives "new ways of looking at both old and new arguments?" Not here. "Irreligion is an elegant and timely response to the manifold ignorance that still goes by the name of "faith" in the twenty-first century?" But if this chapter is an itself unelegant and ignorant of the actual issues. Paulos takes us "on a journey of flawless logic?" As one who teaches logic, it's hard to see it happening in this part of his book.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Hindu Extremists Persecute Christians in India

Here's more detail on the recent violence against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa.

From the CT article:

"The violence began on Christmas Eve, with an attack on a Catholic church in Brahmani village, and continued until January 2. Christian leaders told the National Human Rights Commission that 9 people had been killed, close to 90 churches burned, about 600 houses torched or vandalized, and thousands displaced.

Three months before the series of attacks, a newspaper had warned that tensions were brewing between the Christian and non-Christian tribal communities over governmental affirmative-action benefits. During Christmas week, local Christians had urged district authorities to provide police protection. Their pleas went unheeded."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Philosophy Exams

Philosophy of Religion students: your oral exams will be held in A 173b.

History of Western Philosophy students: your oral exams will be at Whitman Center, Room 2.

Any questions? Shoot me an e-mail.

Christians Persecuted in Egypt

Sunday’s Jerusalem Post had this article on Christian converts in Egypt. I’ve had some pastors from Egypt in my doctoral classes I teach at Palmer Theological Seminary. One of my students was a leader in the Coptic Church in Egypt. “Coptic” is from the Egyptian word “gupta,” from which “E-gupt” (”Egypt”) comes. The “Coptic” church is the ancient Christian church in Egypt. Also, the Egyptian pastors told me that it was very difficult to be a follower of Jesus in Egypt, and there was a lot of persecution of Christians there.

Here is the Jerusalem Post article in its entirety. Note the lack of religious freedom in Egypt.
“Twelve Egyptian converts to Christianity have had their conversions officially recognized by an Egyptian court.

The 12 who were born Copts, converted to Islam and then converted back to their original faith.
The recognition of their new faith by the highest civil court in Egypt overturns an April 2007 ruling by a lower court forbidding them to convert to Christianity on the grounds that it would be apostasy.

The ruling is seen as a small victory for human rights advocates in Egypt.”

For more of this story go here. We read: "In his ruling Saturday (February 9), Judge El-Sayeed Noufal ordered Egypt’s Interior Ministry to issue the converts “Christian documents” noting their “ex-Muslim” status. “Every citizen should have a document confirming his civil status … mentioning one’s religion is very important to express one’s beliefs,” Noufal said in his verdict."

Imagine being a follower of Jesus in Egypt and having to carry an ID card that identifies you as "Ex-Muslim."

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ehrman's New Book Fails to Deal With the Problem of Suffering

Bart Ehrman's new book comes out Feb. 19. It's called God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer. It gets a tiny review in this week's Time magazine here.

The Time review makes two brief points:

1. A systemic case for suffering cannot be made from the Bible (according to the reviewer, David van Biema).

2. Ehrman fails to deal with the more developed defenses such as the free will defense. "Were he to confront their ideas in earnest, he would present his disbelief with a stiffer challenge and readers with a more useful book."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Manga Samurai Jesus

A review of The Manga Bible: From Genesis to Revelation, is found in nytimes.com here.

"Ajinbayo Akinsiku wants the world to know Jesus Christ, just not the gentle, blue-eyed Christ of old Hollywood movies and illustrated Bibles. Mr. Akinsiku says his Son of God is “a samurai stranger who’s come to town, in silhouette,” here to shake things up in a new, much-abridged version of the Bible rooted in manga, the Japanese form of graphic novels."

Akinsiku, who hopes to become an Anglican priest, describes Jesus this way: “Christ is a hard guy, seeking revolution and revolt, a tough guy.”

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says: “It will convey the shock and freshness of the Bible in a unique way.”

Hmmm... But I do agree - the Real Jesus is shocking, revolutionary, relevant.

A Scientific Argument Against Abortion

In today's nytimes.com Robert George of Princeton and Christopher Tollefsen of the University of South Carolina argue for the full personhood of the human embryo in their new book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, reviewed here. ““To be a complete human organism,” they write, “an entity must possess a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system.” The program begins at conception; therefore, so does personhood.”

Their’s is a purely scientific argument. Full humanity is not located in a soul, but in a biological program. And great potential is there; viz., the possibility of developing a brain and central nervous system. I think, from a purely scientific standpoint, they are correct. If there is no human soul, then of course full humanity begins at conception. If it does not, then it’s truly weird to think that personhood begins somewhere along the way.

As a Christian theist I believe persons have souls. See, for fun, neuroscientist Mario Beauregard's The Spiritual Brain. But I think it's interesting to see how atheists and Christian theists could both agree that abortion is taking the life of a defenseless person; i.e., abortion is murder. The work of George and Tollefsen gives us the pure science. "George and Tollefsen reason that the embryo is fully human and its life therefore inviolable, because its program is self-contained."

Note: the nytimes review finds problems with the reasoning of George and Tollefsen. For me, the point remains that, if persons did not have souls, then full personhood would begin at conception, because if it did not then a "person" would somehow, even suddenyly, emerge along the way. What, then, would be the thing that happened to change a mass of protoplasm into a "person?"

Friday, February 08, 2008

N.T. Wright on Heaven

N.T. Wright is interviewed by Time magazine on the idea of heaven here.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Why I Am A Christian

This week one of my philosophy students asked me why I am a Christian. And why, among the world religions, I would choose Christianity. I always enjoy dialoguing with students, so much appreciated the questions. Here's the letter I wrote to him.

Hi _____ – I’m glad you wrote me.

Briefly, my answer to your question as to why I am a Christian is this. My faith is absed on the following.

My conversion experience
My reflection on that experience
My ongoing studies
My ongoing experience

My experience

From age 18-21 I was heavily into alcohol and drugs. I flunked out of college. A lot of things were getting ruined in my life as a result of my habits.

I began to see that I was in a deep hole dug by myself. I didn’t know where to turn.

One day I prayed to God and said, “God if you are real and if Jesus is real, then help me. If you help me I’ll follow you.”

That was the last day I did drugs. Now it’s 37 years later. I have not even been tempted to do drugs again which, to me, is nothing short of a miracle.

I attribute this to Jesus.

My reflection on that experience

I began to study about Christianity. Even though I was raised in a church I really did not pay much attention to religious things. I just went on Sundays. I didn’t hate it. It just, practically, meant little or nothing to me.

So when I became a follower of Jesus I wanted to know: is Christianity true? I changed my major in college from music theory to philosophy.

In philosophy I was trained in, among other things, the Enlightenment Euro-centric worldview that is reductionistic and, thus, extremely skeptical of religious and spiritual things.

I began to conclude that even when I applied the best reductive analysis to my conversion experience I could not shake the idea that there really is a God and that Jesus is God the Son, come to us.

My ongoing studies

My ongoing studies continue to confirm my initial act of faith. Here are some things I believe to be academically sound.

That there is a God, and that good reasons can be given to believe in God. I believe it is more rational to believe in God than to disbelieve.
That the New Testament documents are reliable in their witness to the historical person Jesus.
That a strong inductive argument can be made for the actual resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
That, among the world religions, there are reasons why only Christianity has truly gone global. The other major world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism) are profoundly ethnic, whereas Christianity is truly multi-ethic. Also, only Christianity tells us that God loves us not for what we do but for who we are. The Christian word for this is “grace” and, to me, this is huge. It makes Christianity more plausible than the other major alternatives.
I have also taught in various places around the world and observed the world religions close-up, as well as studied them.

My ongoing experience

For the past 27 years I have spent many hours each week praying. I have kept a spiritual journal, which is a record of the voice of God to me. I have written over 2500 pages of journal entries.
I am experiencing and seeing more and more evidences of the reality of Christianity in my own life and the lives of others, to include those in my church and in the various places where I go to teach and speak. So, I find much experiential and even empirical confirmation of what I believe.

I hope this helps.

If you want to ask questions that are more specific let me know!


John Piippo

Saturday, February 02, 2008

John Allen Paulos Defeats a Weak Version of the Fine-Tuning Argument

John Allen Paulos, in Irreligion, thinks the Fine-Tuning Argumnt for the Existence of God fails. Unfortunately, he devotes only a few pages to this argument. And, he presents a weak version of the argument which he then thinks he has defeated.

Paulos formulates the argument as follows:

1. The values of physical constants, the matter-antimatter imbalance, and various other laws are necessary for human beings to exist.
2. Human beings exist.
3. The physics must have been fine-tuned to the constants’ values to make us possible.
4. Therefore the fine-tuner, God, exists.

Paulos then writes: “Clearly the jump from Assumptions 1 and 2 to 3 in the argument sketched above is one of the weakest aspects of this argument. What does follow from Assumptions 1 and 2 above is simply that the values of the constants are what they are.” (28)

OK. Except, as with Paulos’s attack on the cosmological argument, he again fails to present the stronger version.

In my philosophy of religion classes, using Pojman’s Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, we discuss the essay by Robin Collins. Collins formulates the Fine-Tuning Argument as follows:

5. The existence of the fine-tuning is not improbable under theism.
6. The existence of the fine-tuning is very improbable under the theistic single-universe hypothesis.
7. Conclusion: From premises (1) and (2) and the prime principle of confirmation, it follows that the fine-tuning data provide strong evidence to favor the design hypothesis over the atheistic single-universe hypothesis.

Collins’s prime principle of confirmation is: “Whenever we are considering two competing hypotheses, an observation counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which the observation has the highest probability (or is the least improbable).”

Using this argument Collins points out that the anthropic principle objection does not apply. Collins’s formulation simply concludes: “Our existence as embodied, intelligent beings is extremely unlikely under the atheistic single-universe hypothesis (since our existence requires fine-tuning), but not improbable under theism. Then, we simply apply the prime principle of confirmation to draw the conclusion that our existence strongly confirms theism over the atheistic single-universe hypothesis.

Collins cites philosopher John Leslie. Leslie uses a “firing squad” analogy and says that, if fifty sharpshooters all miss me, the response “If they had not missed me I wouldn’t be here to consider the fact” is not adequate.

Paulos also gives one sentence to the multiverse theory as an objection to the fine-tuning argument. Collins responds in detail to this objection in the Pojman essay. For one example of problems with the multiverse theory see the article by Paul Davies here.

So I think Paulos has failed to defeat the fine-tuning argument. Or, perhaps, he has defeated a certain version of it, one which I don't teach in my philosophy classes.

One more thing (I can't resist) - Paulos asks, "Why does solemnity tend to infect almost all discussions of religion." (25) Well..., it doesn't. As someone who discusses a lot of religious things with both the religious and the irreligious, I can't relate to this. It's certainly not been my experience. Paulos writes: "The incongruity necessary for appreciating humor is only recognizable with an open mind and fresh perspective." Huh? I'll have to think about that one.

Friday, February 01, 2008

"Zeitgeist" - A Case Study in Non-Critical Nonsense

I recently encountered a young man who watched a movie called "Zeitgeist" and, as a result, left Christianity and even all religion.

So, I pulled it up and watched it online.

The website's statement says:

"Zeitgeist, produced by Peter Joseph, was created as a nonprofit filmiac expression to inspire people to start looking at the world from a more critical perspective and to understand thatvery often things are not what the population at large think they are. The information in Zeitgeistwas established over a year long period of research and the current Source page on this site lists the basic sources used / referenced...

... Now, it's important to point out that there is a tendency to simply disbelieve things that arecounter to our understanding, without the necessary research performed. For example, some information contained in Part 1 and Part 3, specifically, is not obtainedby simple keyword searches on the Internet. You have to dig deeper. For instance,very often people who look up "Horus" or "The Federal Reserve" on the Internet draw their conclusions from very general or biased sources. Online encyclopedias or text book Encyclopedias often do not contain the information contained in Zeitgeist. However, if one takes the time to read the sources provided, they will find that what is being presented is based on documented evidence...

...It is my hope that people will not take what is said in the film as the truth, but find out for themselves, for truth is not told, it is realized."

These are lofty claims that are not realized. Anyone who buys into the "research" done in "Zeitgeist" actually proves its point by being so non-scholarly. The young man who left Christianity as a result of watching this thing is a perfect example of not "looking at the world from a more critical perspective."

For two resources that debunk the idea that, e.g., the Jesus story is indebted to Egyptian mythology (and other mytholologies), see my August 22 post below.

Then, go the the extended critical comments by Ben Witherington here. Witherington writes, among other things: "There is no hint of any direct influence of either that religion or Egyptian religion per se, in the Old Testament or New Testament. You will not be finding seminars at the national SBL meeting on how Zoroastrian religion and Egyptian religion explains all we need to know about the origins of Biblical religion.Indeed, what you can find in the Bible is the deconstruction of other culture's myths, or better said the demythologizing of such material, by Biblical writers doing polemics."

Witherington rightly exposes the weird pseudo-scholarly bibliography "Zeitgeist" draws on, to include mushroomist John Allegro and the myth-intoxicated S. Acharya (!).