Friday, November 25, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB [Part 10]: Judaism vs. Modern Biblical Scholarship

After another too-long hiatus, we return to Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

This is the tenth installment of the series. Last time, we concluded with Kugel again clarifying the problem of the Bible for modern readers, which is whether to accept it as both holy and true when so much of modern biblical scholarship seems to have cast doubt on its holiness and veracity:
Do we wish to follow the way Christian interpreters Paul or Jerome read the Bible? Do we wish to follow the way of the "anonymous group of Jewish interpreters" who in Kugel's special sense created the Bible from 300 BCE to the start of the common era? In any case, we cannot and do not read the Biblical text apart from ways of interpreting.

And what of the historical veracity problem? Kugel's argument here, I think, is that the value and efficacy of the Bible in the great change from 300 BCE onward never relied on faithful historical reconstruction. Historical veracity, in other words, is a serious problem only in a Protestant sola scriptura or text-centric interpretive matrix. The next subsection will present the way of interpretation deriving from Jewish tradition.
Unlike Christian traditions of reading the Bible, says Kugel, the Jewish tradition operates independently of the question of historical truth. This is because the Torah is not the sole or even primary authority in establishing God's instructions to humanity. There is the Torah, that is, the written Pentateuch, but there is also the Oral Torah, which encompasses "the traditions of [Torah's] proper interpretation and application." Both Torahs are asserted to have been given to Moses at the same time.

The Oral Torah includes not just biblical interpretation but also ritual, liturgical, and legal matters. The Oral Torah is said eventually to have become the Mishnah, the Tosfta, the two Talmuds, and various compilations of midrash. It's practical significance and utility in rabbinic Judaism were huge, for the written Torah meant whatever the Oral Torah said it meant.

The two Torah tradition, then, distinguishes Judaism from Christianity and Christian approaches to the Bible:
Judaism has at its heart a great secret. It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling [....] Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words; this is its definitive and final interpretation.
Kugel argues that the Jewish tradition of interpretation cannot be reconciled with modern biblical scholarship. The Jewish tradition, as he had explained at the beginning of the book, encompasses Four Assumptions that all ancient interpreters seemed to share about biblical texts. I will give these assumption in abbreviated form, but the full text appears on pages 14-16:
1. The Bible is fundamentally cryptic.
2. The Bible is a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day.
3. The Bible contains no contradictions or mistakes.
4. The Bible is essentially a divinely given text, a book in which God speaks directly or through His prophets.
According to Kugel, the modern scholarly way of reading the Bible rejects the ancient interpretive traditions based on the Four Assumptions. The ancient traditions, on the other hand, do not take the Bible as standalone texts that are to be read at face value (even if they can, in fact, be read in such a way).

In light of the two Torah tradition and the Four Assumptions, what is Judaism's response to the discoveries of modern biblical scholarship?
The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation along the lines of the Four Assumptions of the ancient interpreters--a way of reading that was established in Judaism in the form of the Oral Torah. Read the Bible in this way and you are reading it properly, that is, in keeping with the understanding of those who made and canonized the Bible. Read it any other way and you have drastically misconstrued the intentions of the Bible's framers.
I wish Kugel had been even more argumentative at this point, particularly about the specific difference between the Jewish and fundamentalist responses to modern biblical scholarship. Kugel clearly thinks fundamentalism is unrealistic and isolationist. Yet he also thinks there is no reconciliation to be had in more liberal approaches, as we have seen in the immediately preceding posts of this blog series. Kugel also seems to agree with the consensus of modern biblical scholarship, which I recorded before from the publisher's book description:
The story of Adam and Eve, it turns out, was not originally about the "Fall of Man," but about the move from a primitive, hunter-gatherer society to a settled, agricultural one. As for the stories of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob and Esau, these narratives were not, at their origin, about individual people at all but, rather, explanations of some feature of Israelite society as it existed centuries after these figures were said to have lived. Dinah was never raped -- her story was created by an editor to solve a certain problem in Genesis. In the earliest version of the Exodus story, Moses probably did not divide the Red Sea in half; instead, the Egyptians perished in a storm at sea. Whatever the original Ten Commandments might have been, scholars are quite sure they were different from the ones we have today. What's more, the people long supposed to have written various books of the Bible were not, in the current consensus, their real authors: David did not write the Psalms, Solomon did not write Proverbs or Ecclesiastes; indeed, there is scarcely a book in the Bible that is not the product of different, anonymous authors and editors working in different periods.
Kugel's position, then, seems to be that modern biblical scholarship may be correct about the history and original meanings of biblical texts, but the scholarly consensus has no effect on what the texts really mean. The texts still mean what the Oral Torah says they do, even if they were originally created to communicate a very different kind of message. At some point in history, ancient interpreters got hold of the texts and were able to integrate them into a philosophy of God and Israel. By doing so, these interpreters brought out divine instructions and moral insights in the texts. The interpreters were building a textual universe predicated on God's relationship with His world, His patriarchs, and His people Israel. Their overriding mission was to help their own world of men and women follow from the textual universe; to make, in other words, the real world live out the model of the Torah.

I am not entirely comfortable with Kugel's argument here--although we should bear in mind that he has not yet concluded. However, I am struck by the argument because it touches on an observation I have been following during my participation in the Alpha course: what we often mean by religious faith is faith in a group or tradition, rather than direct trust in God, Jesus, or the Bible. In other words, we trust in the Lord to the extent we accept the authority and credibility of church leaders, pastoral organizations, and religious commentators. Kugel's faith lies in the ancient Jewish interpreters and in the rabbinic tradition. The project of these interpreters had no need for the kind of data brought out by modern scholars.

As I said, I am not entirely comfortable with Kugel's argument. It reminds me of the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) view of science and religion advocated by biologist Stephen Jay Gould. But I wonder if the conclusions about the Bible and the methods developed by ancient interpreters really are unaffected by what modern scholars discover about the original meanings of the texts or about the non-historicity and non-authorship of certain biblical characters.

But let's keep going through the chapter and seem how Kugel continues to unfold his argument.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Paul Motian, 1931-2011

A great drummer and percussionist.

The War on the War on Christmas Begins Early

A Facebook contact posted the above image, which gathered several "like" votes quickly.

Honestly, though, who says it's not OK to say "Merry Christmas" and "God Bless America"? For fuck's sake, people, say what you have to say.

Of course, it is no less OK to say "Happy Holidays." It is no less OK to wish people well without limiting the greeting either to Christmas or to the various religious holidays this time of year. It's no less OK to point out that not everyone is Christian, not everyone observes Christmas, not everyone agrees that Christmas generally is a good thing, and not everyone expresses patriotism in with "God Bless America."

You want people to see that you are a Christian and a good patriot, too. You don't beat your wife and you don't kick your dog. You drive a pickup truck and you go to parades. Bully for you, pal, bully for you.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Basically an Underachiever: Five Great Films by Woody Allen

"If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever."

I watched part one of the Woody Allen documentary last night on my local PBS station. It was very good, and though I had not planned to see it, it was quite compelling.

Many of Allen's films are special to me. Here are the standouts:
1) Manhattan (1979): My all-time favorite, not only because Mariel Hemingway is beautiful.

2) Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): Great plot, great actors.

3) Zelig (1983): I love this movie! The PBS documentary had some moments that reminded me of the opening of Zelig.

4) Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): Another great 1980s film with an ensemble cast.

5) Sleeper (1973): Lots of smart gags.
The notable omission is Annie Hall (1976), which is unnecessary to put on a list. I have seen virtually no 1990s and beyond films by Allen (or anyone else, for that matter--in fact, I have not set foot in a movie theater since 2001).

I have a CD set of Allen's stand up act. It's the best stand up of all time, if you want my opinion.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Evil God Challenge

Which one represents the true nature of "God"?
If you like a good disagreement among philosophers, you should check out the discussion between Stephen Law and Edward Feser. I won't recall the full play-by-play here, but the point of contention is the coherence of Law's Evil God Challenge.

Law illustrates the evil god challenge like so:
One author dismisses the evidential problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God as “worthless”. Why is it worthless? The author sweeps the problem to one side because they suppose it’s entirely dealt with by two points. The first point is: they suppose we can look forward to a limitless afterlife in which we’ll enjoy the beatific vision, and this is going to more than compensate us for all the horror we experience in this life. The author quotes St. Paul, who said: “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us.” The second point the author makes is this: that the pain etc. we experience now is the price paid for greater goods to be gained later. They illustrate by pointing out how suffering of child being forced to learn the violin is the price justifiably paid for great good of that child’s later being able to play violin (they admit this isn’t suffering on quite the scale of Auschwitz, but insist the same basic principle applies). Indeed, this particular author adds that, by supposing evil constitutes good evidence against a good God, the atheist is just assuming there’s no God and thus no wondrous afterlife etc. that more than compensates the evils we experience now. So the atheist’s argument based on suffering is hopelessly circular. Indeed, this author says that atheists who run such an argument need “a course in logic”!

But now here’s where the evil God challenge comes in. All these points made above can be flipped in defence of belief in an evil god. A defender of belief in an evil god can say we can look forward to an afterlife of unremitting terror and suffering, and this will more than compensate us for any good enjoyed now. Moreover, these goods we experience now are actually the price paid for greater evils (I give loads of examples in my paper). Moreover, by assuming that the goods we see around us constitute good evidence against an evil God, the evil-god-rejecter is just assuming there’s no evil God and thus no hellish afterlife that more than ou[t]weighs the goods. So this objection against belief in an evil god is hopelessly circular. Clearly, this critic of the evil god hypothesis needs” a course in logic”!
Feser's critique of the evil god challenge is nicely presented here:
Law claims that the evidence for the existence of a good God is no better than the evidence for the existence of an evil god, and that any theodicy a theist might put forward as a way of reconciling the fact of evil with the existence of a good God has a parallel in a reverse-theodicy a believer in an evil god could put forward to reconcile the presence of good in the world with the existence of an evil god. Now, no one actually believes in an evil god. Therefore, Law concludes, since (he claims) the evidence for a good God is no better than that for an evil God, no one should believe in a good God either. That’s the “evil god challenge.”

The trouble is that Law regards this as a challenge to theism generally, and it simply isn’t. It applies at most only to one, historically idiosyncratic version of theism.  So, suppose you regard the divine attributes as in principle metaphysically separable -- that something that is, for example, omnipotent or omniscient could nevertheless fail to be all-good. Suppose also that you regard good and evil as on a metaphysical par, neither more fundamental than the other. And suppose that you consider the grounds for belief in God to consist in an inductive inference to the effect that God is the best explanation of various bits of evidence -- the orderliness of the world, the good we find in it, etc. Given those specific metaphysical and epistemological assumptions -- the sort that might be made by someone beholden to a “theistic personalist” conception of God and who thinks Paley-style “design arguments” and the like are the best reason to believe in God -- Law’s challenge might be a problem. (Or maybe not. But since I have no time either for theistic personalism or for Paley-style “design arguments,” I really couldn’t care less.)
Feser gives a good summary of Law's position, and Law's argument isn't particularly difficult at any rate. Yet at this stage I think Law has the better of the debate. Law says that Feser could overcome the evil god challenge by coming up "with some really extraordinarily good argument for the existence of a good god, an argument that’s so very, very compelling that it more than outweighs the mountain of evidence against such a god constituted by the vast quantities of horror and suffering we see around us."

But Feser's response is a variety of "not MY god," in that he claims his argument is not subject to the evil god challenge. Feser's argument for god, he claims, is different--making Law's challenge "irrelevant." Feser explains:
His “evil god hypothesis” doesn’t stalemate the arguments for classical theism, for two reasons. First, unlike the “good god” of theistic personalism, the God of classical theism isn’t in the same genus as Law’s “evil god.” The God of classical theism isn’t the same kind of thing as Law’s “evil god” at all. (Indeed, unlike everything else that exists, the God of classical theism isn’t in a genus or kind in the first place -- that’s part of the whole point of classical theism.) So there is no parallel between alternative “hypotheses” of the sort Law needs in order to get his “challenge” off the ground.

Second, the arguments typically employed by classical theists simply cannot be stalemated by “evidential” considerations because they are typically not “evidential” or inductive or probabilistic arguments in the first place. If an Aristotelian argument from motion, or Aquinas’s “existence argument,” or Neo-Platonic arguments work at all, they get you demonstratively to something that is pure actuality, or subsistent being itself, or an absolute unity; and the other metaphysical theses alluded to get you from there to something that is of necessity perfectly good (indeed, something that is goodness itself). To suggest that what is purely actual or subsistent being itself might, given the “evidence,” be evil, is simply unintelligible. To make such a suggestion would merely be to show that the one making it doesn’t understand the metaphysical concepts in question.
I don't hear Feser saying much here. His first argument basically accuses Law of using a straw man as the "good" god. The second argument is bizarre. Although the classical God is conceived as pure and transcendent, the argument to purity and transcendence begins with inferences from reality. I don't see why it makes a difference whether we are talking about pure and transcendent evil as well as pure and transcendent good. In neither case do I buy Feser's appeal to exceptionalism.

Law puts the matter best in his comment to Feser: "Anyway, that's my take for what it's worth. I don't doubt you will continue to maintain that the evil god challenge "doesn't apply" to your sort of theism, despite the fact that it actually very nicely reveals the inadequacy of the theodicies you offered in your book."

Monday, November 14, 2011


First, I am not moving over to I haven't been invited. Waaaah!

However, I have had my responses to set questions posted over at You, Me & Religion. Check it out. I answered the questions in the springtime, as you'll see by the reference to Pesach.

I have recently returned from an overnight getaway with my Alpha course group. It was interesting experience, both personally and intellectually. I think I am going to start posting from my notes on the weekly sessions.

Friday, November 11, 2011

In the Humanities, We Too Want to Find Things Out

Tauriq Moosa at 3 Quarks Daily is unconvinced by my defense of pop-culture humanities, including conferences such as the Jersey Shore conference held recently at the University of Chicago. Moosa says I fail "to offer good reasons for us to take the conference even a little seriously." He then proceeds to assess the conference program against my assertions of value for the topics (based only on the titled of topics and papers--I was not there).

Here is Moosa on the identity studies topic:
I’ve never understood what identity studies are about and what it means. I say this and I live in South Africa. Having engaged with it for many years, I’ve found identity studies to be nothing but nonsense posturing as deep, complex, psychological questions. In the end, who the hell cares? I’m an ex-Muslim who studies bioethics, to change public policy on matters on euthanasia and organ donation, and I read too many comics – I’ve never considered what my identity is or means in the context of a society that is largely unemployed and uneducated. What I have considered is what those factors of unemployment and no education will do when I attempt to engage in political change on matters of medicine (since the majority of the very population I want to benefit might not at first understand my reasons for wanting medical practioners to kill their patients, legally).

But will engaging with what it means to, say, be a man in today’s world really be an important topic? I’m always hesitant about such topics since sometimes people want to take what should be a discussion as a platform to advocate how men (or women) should be; which I think is unfounded, since gender roles don’t make sense anymore with, for example, increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships and artificial insemination. Who cares “how” a man should be in today’s world? I don’t think it’s a relevant topic, but then that’s just me.
Moosa is completely correct about a danger in identity studies to produce "nonsense posturing as deep, complex, psychological questions." One is well served to have a BS-meter handy when reading any paper that purports to focus on identity issues.

Yet, questions of identity do have importance, as does engaging with such questions. Moosa asks why one should care about the topic, and why it matters to have students engage with questions of masculinity or femininity or race or income level or legal status on and so on.

Here's why: because we want to know how things work, including societies and cultures. Some people want to know how light behaves under certain conditions. Others want to know how an organism survived millions of years ago in a hostile environment. Some people want to know what happens when two different molecules interact with each other. Some people want to know how people make sense of the sounds and gestures produced by other people. And some people want to know how different ideas get expressed, used, shared, and altered in a culture.

I am one of the people in this last group. I think we can look at identity categories, for one thing, as a way of studying the historical character of cultures. I believe further that knowing more about such categories and their uses in cultures helps to advance the cause of civil/legal equality and to lessen bigotry.

Moosa asks "Who cares 'how' a man should be in today’s world?" The answer is that I do. I care how masculinity gets defined, and I think it has broad social implications and historical connections. There's a light beer commercial series that focuses on unmanly behavior. Usually, one guy in the commercial won't drink the right kind of light beer and it ties into some earlier behavior that was either too child-like or too feminine. These humorous constructions of masculinity have interesting tie backs to other beer commercials and to other literature where men better behave like men. And we all know of real-life groups and situations where it was a matter of harm or death to act unmanly.

So, yeah, it's relevant how people construct manliness or Italian-American-ness or most any other identity. It's important. Moosa repeatedly he uses the words "important" (10 times) and "pointless" (6 times) to dismiss both the subject of the conference--Jersey Shore--and the approach to the subject--too shallow and posturing.

But I see the humanities as able to play an important role in (1) developing the cultural knowledge mentioned above, and (2) teaching the critical thinking skills required for such knowledge. As I remark in another post:
My point is not about the relative quality of the products, Jersey Shore vs. The Brothers Karamazov; it's about their value (also not equal) in allowing students to learn, discuss, and hone critical thinking skills. In my ideal world, the best teaching would lead people to be offended that Jersey Shore was ever offered as an option for entertainment. And then the show would fold along with others of its ilk.
Moosa rightly points out the dangers of people getting on platforms to tell us how men or women should be. In my conception, the humanities is descriptive, not prescriptive. Moosa also asks why people like me want to know how people of the past saw their world, why people like me want to understand the fictional worlds created in our literature, and why people like me want to study reality shows and comic books. The answer is (again) because we, like you, want to know how the world works. For us, the pleasure of finding things out concerns things that are made and valued by people. 

And that's why even a conference on Jersey Shore has a point and has importance. Moosa is quite right that the Jersey Shore conference could have been on anything: from the Darwin biopic to Lost, and everywhere in between. The point is, however, that we have companies and people who make something like Jersey Shore, we have companies and people who make money from the show, and we have people who watch it and have their various reactions to it. This point is important because it requires us to make up hypotheses, as Moosa does, for why the show is a hit. He says:
Most people are comfortably bored with their lives and, lacking creative stimulus enjoy seeing "better" versions of themselves through the tanned, ripped abs of Italian-American people from New Jersey; the show is so unbelievably stupid, you watch it the same way you do a car-crash in slow motion, except the things breaking are people’s lives and what’s dissolving is time better spent elsewhere; and so on.
These are excellent hypotheses and worth investigating. In my mind, in my conception of the humanities, these are precisely the kinds of questions to explore. I suspect that the papers of the Jersey Shore conference actually make just these explorations, except perhaps in a tapioca of puffed out prose, but the hypotheses are the point. We do humanities to make hypotheses, to make arguments, and to weigh and consider their merits and flaws.

From what I gather, a show like Jersey Shore screams for an explanation. Who would produce such a thing? Why would it resonate? If we start, dispassionately, at this show, what can we learn about the workings of a culture in which Snooki is a star?

These are questions of interpretation and argumentation, and they are also questions of information and data. Many of the cultural studies questions raised in the conference do or could lead to data. After all, most historical scholarship requires data on the period in question, even if the period is very recent. Indeed,  data appears to be quite "hot" in the humanities right now.

Should the Jersey Shore conference be taken seriously? I say "yes" because it offers views of a cultural phenomenon, a phenomenon that can give us information on how our world actually works. I know folks in the sciences who get up in arms when the government or the public views their projects as frivolous, unimportant, a waste, or without benefit.

May I humbly suggest, then, that the scholars in Jersey Shore conference might have their own takes on why the conference was not a waste of funding and was a legitimate way to serve education? And may I humbly suggest that these scholars offer their takes publicly?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prepare to Lose (for Tristan Vick)

This post is respectfully dedicated to Tristan Vick, "Advocatus Atheist," who makes all of us better thinkers.

I mentioned before that I have been participating in an Alpha course with my wife, who is a Christian. I stand by my description of the course as:
A Christian outreach program. It consists of weekly sessions to persuade people into becoming more devout Christians. It purports to offer a "safe" place for raising doubts and questions about Christianity, but--if my experience is typical--it's really an ongoing sermon conducted in "free" dinners, worship songs, DVD lectures, and small group discussions.
The latter part of the description gives the most serious objection to the course, that it encourages doubts and questions to be raised but doesn't give time and attention for them to be pursued. This is problematic because it means the course is "safe" for voicing concerns but not for holding them. It's not a course in investigation or inquiry: it's a course in indoctrination.

Honest investigation and inquiry require one to be prepared to lose even cherished hypotheses and beliefs. Thus, I am ready to learn something new in Alpha that will change one or more of my opinions dramatically. If a compelling argument is brought before me, or if I come upon one myself, I am ready to admit that atheism is less correct or probably incorrect.

Yet, I wonder whether I really am prepared to give up atheism or whether I am just saying it to appear more rational to myself. Of course, I also wonder whether my fellow participants are prepared to lose Christianity. The point is that I have no reason to feel superior or satisfied in the course, even though I often cringe at what people say.

Beyond this, my fellow participants are my fellows: I like them and genuinely feel for the struggles and successes they face outside the classroom. Someone has a very ill parent. A couple is enduring the endless waiting of the adoption process. A couple is trying to make it work. A woman is coping with depression. A man is waiting on a job offer.

I have settled into thinking that my role in the course is to assert that atheists are normal people with legitimate reasons for rejecting religious and theistic doctrines. It is possible, I say, to perceive the full message of Christianity and to understand it as well as any believer...and also accept that it is untrue. It is possible to be good, happy, giving, peaceful, fulfilled, and whole without gods and religions.

Atheist philosopher George H. Smith wrote: "We have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from the honest pursuit of truth." This is not quite true. Right or wrong, as individuals we often fear losing the comfort of familiar beliefs. We don't like the uncertainty that comes with  the honest pursuit of truth. We don't like bracketing most everything we think or believe as provisional and conditional--and subject to revision.

But self-identifying atheists, more than other people, have to declare themselves willing to pursue truth honestly. I say "more than other people" because pursuing truth is a raison d'etre of atheism. We therefore need to show that our opinions and beliefs are not sacrosanct.

We should, forgiving the mystical language, accept the wise counsel of Bruce Lee: "Like everyone else you want to learn the way to win. But never to accept the way to lose. To accept defeat — to learn to die — is to be liberated from it. Once you accept, you are free to flow and to harmonize."

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Holy Spirit, Holy Bullshit

Because I was invited, I have been attending an Alpha course with my wife, who is a Christian. The Alpha course, for those who don't know, is a Christian outreach program. It consists of weekly sessions to persuade people into becoming more devout Christians. It purports to offer a "safe" place for raising doubts and questions about Christianity, but--if my experience is typical--it's really an ongoing sermon conducted in "free" dinners, worship songs, DVD lectures, and small group discussions.

In my participation in the course, I have sought to be neither the token Jew nor the token atheist. Certainly, if anyone is under the impression that I may turn Christian, s/he is quite mistaken. After all...facts are facts, and no doctrine or dogma will make me give up on facts. And the facts are against Christianity as they are against Judaism, Islam, and all other theisms.

I may post later on my experiences in Alpha. My double background--Jewish and atheist--may add something new to other perspectives on the course that are already available. For now, though, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit. In the course, we seem to be building up to a focus on the importance of believing in it and venerating it.

My life as a medievalist and as an American has given me some access to the idea of the Holy Spirit, but now that I must face it by itself, squarely, I must ask: How is it that that we can talk about a holy spirit and not have the sense that we're just making shit up? I don't mean to be rude, but...come on! A fucking spirit? Are people serious about this?

Of course they are serious. I understand the importance placed on believing in or denying the Holy Spirit. I wish, however, that someone would attempt to justify the concept to me. More than most anything else in Christian doctrine, the Holy Spirit demonstrates that the power of religion comes from its stimulation of the individual psyche.

Let's look at a few pronouncements on the Holy Spirit, and remember also that for many faith demands belief in the Holy Spirit. Hear it again: Faith demands belief. Faith does not entail belief or lead to belief or point to belief. It demands and requires belief. Believe it or else you are not one of the faithful. If you disbelieve, you are not one of the godly and one of the church. If you disbelieve, you are an opponent of God and an enemy.

The basics of the belief are:
  • The Holy Spirit is one "person" in the triune god. There's God the dad, Jesus the boy, and the Holy Spirit.
  • The Holy Spirit shares the same essence as God and Jesus but is distinct: think of three separate impressions made in wax. Same substance, distinct forms.
  • The Holy Spirit is not material but is rather perceived within a person as having emanated from God.
With the Holy Spirit, we are basically talking about people feeling as though they are instruments of God's will. The Holy Spirit is God acting in man. Christianity uses the Greek New Testament exclusively as justification for the concept. The Gospel of John figures prominently in the defense, as does the Book of Acts and Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.

It's clear, however, that no justification for the concept of the Holy Spirit exists outside the NT and the Christian interpretive tradition. We cannot apprehend the Holy Spirit through the senses or through instruments. Yet we can get in big, big trouble for not believing in the Holy Spirit. This is the sin that will not be pardoned according to the Synoptic Gospels. And people scoff at Bertrand Russell for having said fear is the foundation of religion.

If you think religion is about intellectual or even emotional arguments, you are only partly and secondarily correct. The psyche, the motivational part of the mind, is the the endgame of religion. Religion is all about supplying motives and about motivating. The Holy Spirit is, ultimately, a metaphor for motivation: motivation against reason, motivation against intellect, motivation against interest.

I began thinking I didn't know what the Holy Spirit was, but I realize now that I get it perfectly. What's more, I get what Christianity uses it for.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

He Noticed!

I'm a-flutter (really, I am!).

Jerry Coyne gives mention to my criticism of his take on the Jersey Shore conference. In his response, Coyne writes:
But of one thing I’m sure: reading The Brothers Karamazov will make them think even more deeply.
I totally agree. A person's efforts will be much more rewarded by reading Dostoyevsky than by watching Jersey Shore.

Yet, good teaching can help students gain real value from both, and the value available to students from serious discussion of Jersey Shore has a relevance that is not offered even by literary classics. Being able to talk to students about the characters, the stories, the values, and the goals of Jersey Shore provides a right-now context for concerns that students also have right now. And unlike The Brothers Karamazov, Jersey Shore lends itself to students better: very few students ever think they understand Dostoyevsky, even when they do, while all students feel like they have a handle on Jersey Shore.

My point is not about the relative quality of the products, Jersey Shore vs. The Brothers Karamazov; it's about their value (also not equal) in allowing students to learn, discuss, and hone critical thinking skills. In my ideal world, the best teaching would lead people to be offended that Jersey Shore was ever offered as an option for entertainment. And then the show would fold along with others of its ilk.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Moral Deity That Commands "You Shall Not Allow Any Soul to Live"

Most everyone by now knows about the statement by biologist and public atheist Richard Dawkins on why he refuses to debate the Christian apologist William Lane Craig. A key reason, Dawkins explains, involves Deuteronomy 20:13-17 and Craig's endorsement of it. The passage has God commanding Moses to destroy various cities utterly, killing everyone indiscriminately.

Dawkins's refusal and citation of the Bible has, of course, caused fits of moral incoherence in the religious, who must reconcile (a) an authoritative picture of the god as vile and cruel with (b) a theory of the deity as good, just, and merciful. The reconciliation is impossible, and I'll admit to having enjoyed the conniptions of those who have sought to cling to their fantasy of a nice daddy-god.

Dawkins gives some of the biblical text in his article, but I prefer the Chabad version of the text, offered here with surrounding verses. This, then, is Deuteronomy 20:10-20:
10. When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall propose peace to it.

11. And it will be, if it responds to you with peace, and it opens up to you, then it will be, [that] all the people found therein shall become tributary to you, and they shall serve you.

12. But if it does not make peace with you, and it wages war against you, you shall besiege it,

13. and the Lord, your God, will deliver it into your hands, and you shall strike all its males with the edge of the sword.

14. However, the women, the children, and the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoils you shall take for yourself, and you shall eat the spoils of your enemies, which the Lord, your God, has given you.

15. Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations.

16. However, of these peoples' cities, which the Lord, your God, gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any soul to live.

17. Rather, you shall utterly destroy them: The Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord, your God, has commanded you.

18. So that they should not teach you to act according to all their abominations that they have done for their gods, whereby you would sin against the Lord, your God.

19. When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you?

20. However, a tree you know is not a food tree, you may destroy and cut down, and you shall build bulwarks against the city that makes war with you, until its submission.
This is brutal, nasty, indefensible stuff.

Craig has now responded to Dawkins's charges. Christian Today reports Craig as offering:
"There was no racial war here, no command to kill them all," he said, alluding to extermination of the Canaanites in the Old Testament, "the command was to drive them out."

He then said: "I would say that God has the right to give and take life as He sees fit. Children die all the time! If you believe in the salvation, as I do, of children, who die, what that meant is that the death of these children meant their salvation. People look at this [genocide] and think life ends at the grave but in fact this was the salvation of these children, who were far better dead … than being raised in this Canaanite culture."
Craig's response stinks. In his "no command to kill them all," Craig might be referring specifically to Numbers 33:50-56, but of course that's a change from the text cited by Dawkins.

Craig's next bit is outright repulsive: "God has the right to give and take life as He sees fit"? No, no, he does not have that right. At least, it is not obvious that God has such a right either to give or to take life. I would like to see the philosophical case for this.

The rest of Craig's response continues the fail. By his reasoning, a fanatical religious group commanded by God may wipe out each of us, including our young and cute little babies. We should feel pretty good about being murdered, though, because our kids will be far better off in the afterlife--no matter their fear, crying, pain, suffering, and brutalization before death finally comes.

Better hope Westboro Baptist doesn't build up a stockpile.