Friday, March 17, 2023

The BDAG Flâneur: Setting Out

A flâneur \FLAN-uhr\ is an urban stroller, lounger, saunterer, or loafer. The word initially carried the idea of wasting time. But with the rise of especially Parisian urban life, it skipped a step. A flâneur wandered through crowds and streets with a detached but aesthetically attuned observation.[1] Honoré de Balzac described flânerie \FLAN-er-ee\, the verbal form, as "the gastronomy of the eye." Victor Fournel, in Ce qu'on voit dans les rues de Paris (What One Sees in the Streets of Paris, 1867), said there was nothing lazy in flânerie. It was a way of understanding the rich variety of the city landscape like "a mobile and passionate photograph" ("un daguerréotype mobile et passioné") of urban experience.

BDAG, unlike a flâneur, cannot walk or observe. It is a book--a lexicon. It is the standard lexicon for scholars interested in the literature of the New Testament. Its full title is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. It is based in the work of Walter Bauer, but its present revised edition is edited by Frederick William Danker. Put the initials of the two names together and you get BDAG.

If you are a student or scholar in Biblical studies or in the history of Christianity or Second Temple Judaism, you save your pennies to buy this one-thousand-page tome. And you are encouraged to use it. But, at least in my case, I forget to do so. The entries are dense, and I don't have it in electronic form so I have to be with it to use it--no click and it appears a la Logos. Yet, BDAG has been on my mind of late, and I have hit upon an idea.

What if I adopted the relaxed-yet-observant curiosity of the flâneur and go strolling among its pages? Entries would be like stands in a marketplace and shops along a boulevard. What curiosities and sidewalk insights are hidden among its citations? Time, then, to don my shoes, coat, and hat and walk out of doors and into the streets.

*** ***

Α, α, τό first letter of the Gk. alphabet alpha Even at this, the very first entry, there are goods to be had. Already we discover letters used as numbers: α' = 1. β' = 2. Perhaps there was no separate system of counting, though mathematics was already well established in the world. The earliest mathematician is Thales of Miletus in fifth century BCE. But math itself goes much further back into time, to the Babylonians and Sumerians. And before them, to the hunter gatherers of the ancient world as evidence by the marks along the Ishango bone.

Civilizations which use letters as numbers, such as the pre-modern Hebrews, limited themselves greatly, as such systems are not given to advanced arithmatic. What such a scheme is good for, however, is gematria where words mean numbers and numbers words. Gematria is a hot bed for kabbalistic mysticism. It is, therefore, no surprise to discover that alpha and omega signify the beginning and the end and everything in between. "The two came to designate the universe and every kind of divine and superhuman power." The alphabet became a secret bag of spells, a master incantation. To know the true name of anything is to know its secrets and its power, and isn't the alphabet the very storehouse of all true names. It is a metaphysical loom joining life, breath, and sound into a technology of infinite combination.

The last gift of this entry is the first Christian use of alpha in the Sartor Square: a five-line palindrome, rendered in Latin, of five words:

When the five-letter Latin words are read in line order horizontally or vertically or backwards or forwards or bottom to top or top to bottom, they mean, The sower, Arepo, holds or works the wheels with care. Another translation is: He who works the plow sows the seed.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have found Sartor squares all over Europe. The earliest example is from the house of Publius Paquius Proculus at Pompeii. And many have been found in overtly Christian locations. The square is found engraved on the facade of the door in the 752 CE Abbey of St.Peter Ad Oratorium near Capestrano, Italy. It is copied in an 822 Carolingian Bible. And in the 1100s, it was inscribed on the masonry of the Church of St. Laurent near Ardeche, France and in the Keep of the Castle of Loches, France. Locations like these had scholars believing that it was a kind of secret symbol for the Christian community, as its letters can be arranged to spell out Pater Noster. But scholars today believe the square comes from earlier in history and was assumed into Christian praxis. There is nothing distinctively Christian in the anagram itself after all. People have arranged its letters to form many other things, including prayers to Satan and formulas for exorcism.

Ἀβαδδών, ὀ The name of the ruling angel in hell. The relevant material is from Revelation 9.11 "ἔχουσιν ἐπ’ αὐτῶν βασιλέα τὸν ἄγγελον τῆς ἀβύσσου· ὄνομα αὐτῷ Ἑβραϊστὶ Ἀβαδδών καὶ ἐν τῇ Ἑλληνικῇ ὄνομα ἔχει Ἀπολλύων." Abbadon is from the Hebrew, as it says, and Apollyon, the Greek, a derivation, says BDAG, from Apollo, source of plagues. One question I have is about the reference to Psalm 87:11. This presents a mystery to me, as Psalm 87 only has seven verses. Now, the Douay-Rheims (1899) has nineteen verses. So, there must be some kind of text critical thing going on. Yet, Calvin and Matthew Henry only comment on seven, and even Google does not know.


[1] Lots of stealing from Wikipedia going on in this paragraph.

Monday, March 13, 2023

A quick-and-dirty bibliography on Satan

"The Satan of popular imagination, God’s cosmic archenemy and the source of evil, has a long and complex history. Although scholars typically locate this history within the context of ancient Jewish and Christian imaginations, these origins are complicated by a number of factors. Among these are the various uses of the Hebrew noun satan to describe both earthly and cosmic figures and the multiple aliases referring to God’s cosmic opponent in Jewish and Christian literature, including Belial or Beliar, Mastema, Beelzebul, Lucifer, and the Devil, and others. The roots of the character Satan are typically discussed in relation to the Hebrew Bible, although the image of the cosmic opponent emerges most clearly within the writings of early Judaism, in the literature of the Second Temple period (c. 515 BCE–70 CE). Many scholars associate the emergence of this figure with ancient Near Eastern influence on early Judaism. Others highlight it as a response to the problem of evil; Satan and his retinue effectively distance God from acts difficult to reconcile with beliefs about God’s nature. Still others locate the emergence of Satan and satan figures within the context of social movements, arguing that the character of Satan serves as a tool for constructing communal identity and defining opposition.

"Satan, or the Devil or Beelzebul, as a cosmic opponent also plays an important role within the literature of the emerging Christian movement, especially the New Testament texts. In the Gospels the cosmic battle between God and Satan imagined in early Judaism is interpreted in relation to Jesus, whose defeat of Satan is evidenced through exorcism, healing, and resurrection. Although some interpreters contend that the depiction of Jesus as exorcist reflects the historical Jesus’ understanding of his ministry as the eschatological defeat of Satan, others maintain that Jesus’ conflict with Satan should be viewed in terms of his opposition to the Roman Empire. The question of whether or to what extent references to Satan and evil powers should be read as describing political, social, and other human forces permeates scholarship on Paul and Revelation as well.

"Scholarship on Satan appears in a variety of forms, including wide-ranging treatments of the character of Satan across literary and historical contexts; exegetical examinations of specific texts using the terms satan, Belial, and so on; and discussions of Satan in relation to demons, the problem of evil, serpent imagery, and other elements. Many of the latter are intertwined explicitly with theological concerns and questions." ~ from the Oxford Bibliography

Old Testament Biblical Theology

John Walton on Baker Book House blog: view of the accuser in Job.

John Walton on the “Exegetically Speaking” podcast discussing Isaiah 14 and the fall of Satan.

Michael Heiser. Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness. Lexham Press. 2020.

Archie T. Wright. Satan and the Problem of Evil: From the Bible to the Early Church Fathers. Fortress Press. 2022.

  • Transcript of Heiser’s interview with Archie Wright

Ryan E. Stokes. The Satan: How God's Executioner Became the Enemy. Eerdman's. 2019.

Dr. Miriam Brand on the origin of sin and evil in the Second Temple period

John Day writes on the Serpent in the Garden of Eden and Its Background for The Bible and Interpretation

Political Theology
Adam Kotsko. The Prince of This World. Stanford University Press. 2016.

Satan” in Oxford Bibliographies

A scholar’s bibliography of the subject in the literature of the last few decades

Monday, January 09, 2023

Comment on AI and Theology

The entry "What CHATGPT Reveals about the Collapse of Political/Corporate Support for Humanities/Higher Education" on the blog caught my eye. The changes every field is going through as algorithms become more and more capable is fascinating, and I was reading the various comments. Then I came across this one from Alex SL:
I am a scientist, but I do not to reject the humanities (or, as we would have said back in Germany, the social sciences) as empty nonsense. I believe they generate knowledge, and knowledge worth having.

However, there is clearly a bit of an issue in the way they are taught. I started getting that impression already in what would here be called high school, when it seemed that language teachers forced us to over-analyse novels and plays in a way that seemed rather implausible. But the real eye-opener was the big plagiarism scandal around German politicians in 2011, when it occurred to me that such a scandal would simply not be possible in the natural sciences full stop.

These were by training all historians, economists, political scientists, etc, whose dissertation process consisted entirely of reading thirty books and then writing the thirty-first on the exact same topic. They took the short-cut of copying and pasting some text from their sources and then cosmetically changing a few words, and that was plagiarism. But if they had rearranged sentences more thoroughly, they would have fairly obtained their degrees, and there would not have been any scandal; and, crucially, the amount of new knowledge generated would have been exactly the same, i.e., zilch, nada, zero.

In science, however, a graduate student would have been expected to generate new data. The problem to watch out for is not plagiarism, but manipulation of data to make them more “interesting”.

To me, that points to the solution. What chatGPT cannot do, what no mind will ever be able to do without going out into the lab or into the field and run its own surveys, digs, and experiments, is generate new insights that aren’t in its training set. Surely that is a thing that is still possible to achieve in economics, archaeology, social sciences, anthropology, linguistics, etc.? And if a field cannot have that hope, then one would really have to have a conversation about whether it is something worth teaching. (Whispering: “theology”.)

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Sollereder 3: The Philosophical Context

In this fundamental chapter of God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering, Bethany Sollereder reviews the state of contemporary theodicy particularly as it addresses non-human suffering. She excludes arguments focused only on human suffering or theologies that evade the question altogether, meaning they argue that animals do not suffer or they reduce the power or goodness of God or they retreat into inscrutable agnosticism. What remains are contemporary theodicies that generally adopt arguments that make evil necessary to produce the kind of goods in creation which God desires. Such arguments are constructed from strategic options that can be grouped into three categories of good-harm analyses (GHA):

  • Property-consequence GHAs: a consequence of the existence of a good, as a property of a particular being or system, is the possibility that possession of this good leads to it causing harms.
  • Developmental GHAs: the good is a goal which can only develop through a process which includes the possibility (or necessity) of harm. [These can be further divided into instrumental or by-product varieties of developmental GHAs.]
  • Constitutive GHAs: The existence of a good is inherently, constitutively inseperable from the experience of harm or suffering.

Property-consequence GHAs

The main idea of this strategy is nomic regularity or the law-abiding nature of the universe. The goods of such a system include rationality and predictability, including the ability to make meaningful choices. Sure, if you are clumsy or unlucky, a rock will fall on your foot or a forest fire will kill dozens of birds in their nests. But a cosmic order also provides for natural systems that support and produce life and for moral and practical goodness.

Sollereder is not buying it, though. Can those goods not be achieved in a manner that avoids suffering? Is listing such goods a way of avoiding listing their cost in uncountable deaths? The math so often is done without considering animal life. And consideration is made for groups but not for individuals (or between individuals: what about the suffering of this individual over that one?) Harms occur along an imbalance that cannot be righted. Nevertheless, Sollereder chooses a way forward. “I will [argue] later," she says, "that nomic regularity gives non-human animals the chance to develop skills and abilities, to ‘selve’ and form themselves in ways that would be unavailable to them without nomic regularity, even if the present order does cause suffering” (49).

More to come . . .


Previous articles in this series

  1. Leaving the Courtroom
  2. The Bible and the Fall

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Mimesis: a short definition

Mimesis \muh-MEE-sis\ (n.) Gk. μιμησις (imitation) from μιμεισθαι (to imitate) + μἰμος (an actor): In the history of aesthetic philosophy, mimesis is the human impulse to imitate and copy the world. Rather than obscure knowledge, mimesis allows aspects of the outer and inner world to be better observed and understood. Mimesis is an important theme in the work of René Girard. It is also a theme in the writings of Maximus the Confessor and Dionysius the Areopagite. Aesthetic philosophers such as Theodore Adorno and William Benjamin praised language as the chief mimetic instrument. By it better than any other media, human beings appropriate, interrogate, and re-interpret themselves vis-a-vis others and their worlds. Similarly, Gerard wrote, “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind.” We have instinctual responses to help us choose the objects that meet our most basic needs—when we’re hungry, we seek food; when we’re cold, we want warmth. But there is an entire universe of desires for which we have no instinctual basis for choosing one object or another. For these objects of desire, Girard saw that the most important factor in determining what we want are the desires of other people, or what he called our “models of desire.” Fr. Stephen Freeman, blogging about Gerard's thoughts on mimetic desire, argued that the fundamental engine of mimesis is shame. To avoid shame, human beings imitate one another and blend in. Imitation feels safe. But, he continues, imitation can also be fueld by a desire to connect with others.
Communion itself carries within it a desire to be “like” the other, to experience union in as complete a manner as possible. However, healthy communion does not entail the loss of identity or being swallowed by (or swallowing) the other. The ultimate model for communion is found in the Holy Trinity. We are able to confess that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, but we continue to confess that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, etc. Perfect communion can say, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father,” and, “I only do those things that I see the Father doing.” And yet, the Son is not the Father.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

"I find little use for a deity who lets me decide my fate."

I read the following excerpt from the book Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things (Eerdman's 2016) by Dale C. Allison, Jr., Richard J. Dearborn professor of New Testament studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, on the blog "Eclectic Orthodoxy." As a young man, Dr. Allison almost died in a car accident. From living in that momento mori for several decades, he wrote this little book of honesty at 185 pages. It captures something of where my soul is right now. Here is the excerpt:


"But what about the now popular conceptualization of hell as radical freedom, as God letting us choose what we want, including a godless existence? It’s problematic, although it makes for effective apologetics. For if we hate hell, then learn that it’s simply the unavoidable consequence of individual liberty and self-actualization —things we prize so highly—then perhaps hell computes after all. We can think of our freedom to reject God as on a par with all those other freedoms that we can’t do without—academic freedom and economic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of association, and so on.

"Yet when human freedom is front and center, God moves to the wings. In the modern myth, our names are on the marquee, and our destiny is up to us. What we make of ourselves here determines what we are to become there.

"Should we, however, desire starring roles and such Pelagian freedom? Although not an old-fashioned Calvinist, I think it’s obvious that all of us are broken creatures, that we’re selfish and self-deluded, and that we constantly abuse our freedom, which is so often illusory. Because of this, I find little use for a deity who lets me decide my fate. I don’t want to be my own God. Nor do I want the Supreme Being to respect my alleged autonomy no matter what, just as I don’t want the police to respect the autonomy of the despondent guy threatening to jump off the top of the high-rise. I rather desire, for myself and for everyone else, rescue. Our decisions need to be undone, not confirmed. We need to be saved despite ourselves. Even if we’re allowed, in our freedom, to kindle the fires of hell and to forge its chains, isn’t it God’s part to break our chains and put out the fire?

"If the libertarian hell doesn’t give God enough to do, it’s also, perhaps, simplistic in its binary logic. It posits that people move either toward God and so toward heaven or away from God and so toward hell. But, as the Scarecrow says to Dorothy, “People do go both ways.”

"Human beings aren’t unidirectional vectors but bundles of contradictions. Saints are sinners; sinners are saints. Everyone is Jekyll; everyone is Hyde. And everyone is in between. We advance toward God one moment and sound retreat the next, and most of the time we’re stuck in the middle.

We’re confused and divided in ourselves, or rather fragmented. Our wills, our desires, our faith are always veering off course. We don’t just fail to do the good that we will; we just as often fail to do the bad that we will. Who travels the straight and narrow, whether up or down? The modern hell, however, posits that, in the world to come, we keep moving in the direction we’re already headed. Our momentum, so to speak, carries us up to heaven or down to hell. Yet what if, like me, you keep moving in circles?"

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Sollereder 2: The Bible and The Fall

Bethany Sollereder is trying to make sense of God's goodness as creator in the light of natural selection. In the previous chapter, she explained her overall goal and defined some terms. In this chapter, she wants to dismantal cultural readings of the curse language in Genesis three. Why? Because such language has been used to support a cosmic or ontological fall. If such readings can be be upended, nature can be treated as unfallen. That would clear the way for a theodicy that includes natural selection.
I want to argue against the reading that finds a justification for the theology of a cosmic fall . . . [so that] apart from human sin and its direct effects, the world remains God's "very good" creation. . . . [And therefore] the realities of death and suffering are not unambiguously condemned as irreconcilable with God's goodness. (13)

What is meant by fall?

What do Christians mean when they talk about a fall?[1] Turns out, several things. Sollereder groups them into event-based fall theories, such as a human or satanic fall, and mysterious fallenness theories, such as the cosmic fall. Event-based theories are relational; sin enters the word through willful disobedience. The cosmic fall is not a direct but indirect result; it is a punishment for disobedience. Because of it, the cosmos suffers natural evils. Dividing the types of fall into groups is necessary to peel off and, hopefully, disprove the cosmic fall while leaving the human and satanic falls intact.[2] "If it can be shown that the non-human creation is considered uncorrupted at any point in real history by [scripture], the primordial fall theories [read: mysterious fallenness] will face a serious challenge" (14).

Before advancing further, let me reproduce her description of the human and satanic falls in order to highlight their antimony to the thick community of shalom called flourishing in the previous chapter.

The human fall, sometimes called the "relational fall," refers to the event that marks the entrance of sin into the world through human action. The effect of the human fall is the severing of harmonious relationship between human persons and God, between one person and other people, and between humans and the non-human creation. However, apart from the direct result of human sinful action in the world, such as pollution or exploitation of natural resources, the human fall does not independently affect the wider cosmos . . . In the same way, the satanic fall refers to the event of some of the heavenly host deciding to rebel against God and becoming fallen angels. The satanic fall was primordial, meaning that it was in effect from the very origin of physical creation. (Ibid)

Does the Curse of Genesis 3 Require a Cosmic Fall?

The Curse on Childbearing. Sollereder begins her examination of Genesis 3:14-19 by choosing one particular curse, the curse on childbearing. The idea is to show not only that tradition has read it incorrectly, but that a fresh examination yields better data. The traditional way of reading the curse on childbearing is that, because of Eve's sin, the act of childbirth would now be painful due to an actual physiological change. What may have been painful before is now severe. But we know today, she says, that the pain of childbirth is the result of physics, not an alteration to the poorer of a once-better design. Nevertheless, an examination of the Hebrew suggets a better reading than has been available in English translations. Nowhere else do the two words used refer to the pain of childbirth; there are other words for that. The kind of pain these words convey is emotional. Children born now will enter a world of difficulty, uncertainty, and, yes, pain. "Genesis 3 makes no claims at all about the origins of physical labor pains, but only of the sorrow-filled world into which children are born" (25). In this one part of the curse, (a) no physiological/ontological change is required and (b) the pain of the curse is disvalue created by social alienation and violence, not natural evil. And there is also hope: hope that birth and life will go on, fulfilling the creation mandate, and hope that sin itself will one day be dealt with as well.

The Curse on the Ground Sollereder also addresses the curse of the ground. "And to the man [God] said, 'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life" (Gen. 3.17). The Hebrew here in God's address to Adam is paralleled in God's later address to Noah in Genesis 5.29. Noah is prophecied to bring a relief of this curse for humankind. And, after the flood, when Noah is offering a thanksgiving sacrifice to God, God says, "I will never again curse the ground because of humans." God is not here talking about the flood, but about the curse on the land. Adam's curse and Noah's relief form an inclusio. What Adam wrought, Noah relieved.

The removal of the curse [on the ground] means that nature is fully alive once again, fully green and vibrant. Now there is no fallen creation, no dark side to nature because of human sin. Nature is free of the curse, liberated to become lush, green and plentiful."[3]
Sollereder's case is made that there is no cosmic or ontological fall in the curse texts of Genesis. There remains now only to address Paul's interpretation of the status of the ground in Romans chapter eight.

Romans 8

Romans 8.18-23 is often cited as a prooftext that joins the event-based fall of human beings and a cosmic or ontological fall of nature.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time (τὰ παθήματα τοῦ νῦν καιροῦ) are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God, for the creation was subjected to futility (τῇ ματαιότητι), not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor (πᾶσα ἡ κτίσις συστενάζει καὶ συνωδίνει ἄχρι τοῦ νῦν), and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

I have never heard this passage interpreted formally or casually where it did not cement a human and natural fall; this text exists and therefore nature is fallen and yet-unredeemed--an eschatological passage. Sollereder references a marginal (though Richard Bauckham and Gordon Moo are fans) reading of the text where συστενάζει and συνωδίνει, rather than being read together in a hendiadys, "groaning in labor," should be read separately, "groaning" and "trevailing." The tradition appealed to by this change is a Biblical motif of the earth going into mourning, a mourning based on suffering at the hands of sinful human beings. "The world is made subject (by God) to matoites, to a frustrated state where the world displays the 'ineffeciveness of that which fails to attain its goal.'"[4] Nature can suffer without a fall because human beings are fallen. In parallel, nature flourishes when human beings flourish. Paul's statement does not necessitate a cursed creation, only one continually traumatized and victimized.

God and Nature's Violence

There is another argument going on in this chapter about God and violence. Examining the primordial state before creation in Genesis 1, Sollereder interacts with the Chaoskampf tradition about whether Yahweh was in combat with or ruled over original chaos or the flood or Tiamat or satanic forces etc.[5] The argument is close, and her interlocutors come, oddly, not from ANE people but from Openness theologians, e.g. Gregory Boyd of God at War. In the argument is the entire point of the book: God can be good and natural selection be what it is. So although it does not take up majority of the chapter, it is no less an important part of the overall argument. Here's where she winds up:

Chaos has [not] in any way inhibited God's creative endeavor. Instead, . . . even the waters and the darkness form a necessary part of creation. The (literally) dark and dangerous elements of creation were left precisely because they were good and useful--fit for the purposes of God's very good creation" (17).


Previous Posts in this Series: Sollereder 1: Leaving the Courtroom

[1] Sollereder does not like this term "fall" because it presupposes a height to fall from, an Augustinian fall from moral perfection.

[2]] "The view that the fall of Satan had no effect on the goodness of the world was held by most Christian thinkers during the Patristic period" (37n8).

[3] Norman Habel, The Birth, the Curse and the Greening of the Earth: An Ecological Reading of Genesis 1-11 (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011), 111.

[4] Quoting C. E. B. Cranfield.

[5] p. 39n53: The refusal to see chaos in the creation narratives is not . . . a recent phenomenon: it was characteristic of the Patristics (Clement and Hippolytus), and many post-enlightenment writers as well (Herder). [Rebecca] Watson [Chaos Uncreated (Walter de Gryter, 2005) also adds that "the association of the supposed 'Chaoskampf' theme with creation seems not to be original or central in the Hebrew Bible." (379).

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Theology along Three Axes

Theology is stretched across a frame of three sides. Let me illustrate, using election:
  1. Theological ideas consist coordinately along three axes: a horizontal (neighbor, X, abscissa), a vertical (God, Y, ordinate), and a Z-axis (eschatology, Z, applicate).
  2. The doctrine of creation gives pride of place to the vertical axis.
  3. Soteriology, because it is a branch of theology, exists along these three coordinates.
  4. Y: with the Reformed tradition, I assert the mystery of divine election under the lordship of the Spirit and the inability of human beings to savingly believe of themselves.
  5. X: There is no salvation without ethics / faith without works is dead. A person's "heart, soul, mind, and strength" is necessary for saving faith to exist.
  6. Z: The salvation of individuals and of all things may begin in history but it always on the move to its apotheosis in the next age.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

faith is a creaturely knowing

I am just finishing C. Stephen Evans Philosophy of Religion: Thinking About Faith (IVP, 1985) and, in a concluding chapter about faith and religious pluralism, I discovered something worth putting down. Evans is exploring how people believe. Hegel-like, he demarcates two opposing poles which he calls fideism and foundationalism, and then he bisects them with a solution which I call hermeneutical knowing. I have dealt with all of these topics before in this blog, but there is something clear about the way Evans puts it out there. I want to get down his definitions.

foundationalism. Earlier in the book, Evans called this option neutralism, which he said is a desire to be objective in everything--a desire that critiques religious faith, saying religion lacks objectivity. It is too involved. Foundationalists want every stone to be so certain as to be unassailable. This, they say, is reasonable, and faith, because it gets involved, is unreasonable. Evans says foundationalism can take various forms. What all of them share is a deep avoidance of risk.

In [foundationalism's] empiricist form it demands that we rely solely on objective facts in determining our beliefs (Descartes). In its rationalist form it asks that we begin with basic premises which are self-evident to reason. In all its forms foundationalism is an attempt to eliminate subjectivity--and risk--from the knowing process. . . . It is a "quest for certainty" . . . [and] not merely certainty but objective certainty in which the individual makes no risky commitments.

The foundationalist can only engage in critical thinking if he feels it is impartial and unbiased. This is a high bar that, when it is critically examined, cannot support its own committments. Nevertheless, I like what he says a bit later about people liking foundationalism because it keeps out supersition and nonsense. And, frankly, that is me. Recall a two-post series I did some years ago decrying the weakening of science's grip on the public square for the crazy that might force its way in. But I see now that this was reactionary. A weakened foundationalist grip doesn't mean the way is open to blind belief (in anything and everything). I hadn't thought about hermeneutical knowing. But, first, fideism.

fideism. Fideism puts the all-or-nothing not in reason, like the foundationalist, but in belief itself. Only the believer can see the truth. Fideism makes faith a precondition of knowledge. Therefore, the believer herself cannot engage reason or argument to defend or evangelize for her faith because there is no common ground between outsider and insider.

The attitude of the fideist resembles . . . the attitude of some orthodox Marxists, who dismiss the criticisms of Marxism made by non-Marxist economists, political scientists, and philosophers. The Marxist reasons that these people are committed to the economic status quo and that their criticism are therefore merely an idological smokescreen which hides economic self-interest. If a Marxist holds to this position universally in a rigid a priori manner, he eliminates any true dialog between Marxists and non-Marxists. The orthodox Marxist loses the benefit of criticism which might enable him to improve his theories. He shuts himself up in a sterile "world of the committed" and thereby loses the chance to show non-Marxists that Marxism really does provide a superior framework for interpreting political and economic events. In the long run his party-line theories . . . are accepted only by those who find it expedient to do so, and by those who know no alternatives. (19,20)

Evans goes on to talk about how this hobbles any ability to negotiate between religious options. And he says that the fideist overestimates dogmatically the impact of unbelief. Because, to the fideist, reason is so twisted by unbelief, at least where religion and morals are concerned, there is no reason for an unbeliever to evaluate a religious claim. It must be believed first and only then may it be evaluated. (But what if God wanted people to think critically about religious and moral questions?)

hermeneutical knowing. Evans says that there is a lot of space between fideism and foundationalism, space where reasonable judgments can and do come into play. Historians, for example, cannot retreat to either pole but must make their case based on careful observation and critical methodology. Qualified interpretation (such a peer review) provide an answer to my fear of the crazies, and it opens the door for moral and religious argument and to the evaluation of dogma and experiences claimed by religions and ideologies. Key to this, says Evans, is the willingness of faith to be self-critical. An interpretive judgment is reasonable when it can survive the process of critical testing. He suggests a basic criteria (169):

  1. Logical consistency. Does the system of beliefs contradict itself?
  2. Coherence. This is more than bare logical consistency, which is simply the absence of contradiction. Coherence is positive harmony, a fitting-together of beliefs into a coherent whole.
  3. Factual adequacy. Does the belief system account for all the facts?
  4. Intellectual fertility. Does a belief system give rise to new discoveries and insights, suggest new illuminating patterns, call one's attention to unnoticed dimensions of experience?

There is, then, a cumulative case, a building up of evidence born of the hermeneutical spiral, which achieves evaluative reasonableness. And as for the charge that because religions require full committment they usurp themselves, Evans points out that many things also do that: a program of exercise, a commitment to AAA or a model of therapy, a marriage vow. All of these require wholehearted commitment from the outset to achieve success. (I'm left to wonder where Anselm's fides quaerens intellectum "faith seeking understanding, fits into all of this.)


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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Lambeth's new model isn't pretty, but it's right

The Fifteenth Lambeth Conference ended at Canterbury Cathedral just a few days ago from this writing. There was much to celebrate about the conference. Even having the conference is worth celebrating! Deep disagreements over human sexual identity and practice have torn at the unity of the Anglican Communion for years. And even now, delegates from several conservative African diocese did not attend. This conference tried very hard to bracket that disagreement. There is a lot for the worldwide church to do. And, to a large degree, the many delegates were able to do that. But not wholly. The sore points of division cannot just be ignored. To his credit, Archbishop of Canterbury, the most reverend and right honored Justin Welby, understood this. And, in three addresses to the delegates, he admitted frankly that the communion was not whole. In his remarks on the Lambeth Call for Human Dignity, Welby said,
For the large majority of the Anglican Communion the traditional understanding of marriage is something that is understood, accepted and without question, not only by Bishops but their entire Church, and the societies in which they live. For them, to question this teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries would make the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For many churches to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

For a minority, we can say almost the same. They have not arrived lightly at their ideas that traditional teaching needs to change. They are not careless about scripture. They do not reject Christ. But they have come to a different view on sexuality after long prayer, deep study and reflection on understandings of human nature. For them, to question this different teaching is unthinkable, and in many countries is making the church a victim of derision, contempt and even attack. For these churches not to change traditional teaching challenges their very existence.

So let us not treat each other lightly or carelessly. We are deeply divided. That will not end soon. We are called by Christ himself both to truth and unity.

Dr. Ian Paul, writing on not only Welby's remarks and on the state of discussion throughout the conference sees emerging two different models of unity. And it is these models that I want to highlight in this post. The first model of unity is the historic understanding of the Anglican communion, with its high degree of communion, a thick community, and its historic pattern of faith. This communion Catholicism talked about "living 'in communion with autonomy and accountability'" and being "enabled to be conformed together to the mind of Christ" as churches "bound together 'not by a central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the bishops in conference' and of the other instruments of Communion." This was understood to entail a commitment on the part of each member church of the Communion "to have regard for the common good of the Communion in the exercise of its authority" (3.2.1) and "to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission." Welby's remarks, however, have turned the communion toward another definition of unity called autonomous inclusivism.

In autonomous inclusivism each Province of the Anglican Communion is autonomous and called to live interdependently. It seeks "faithfulness to God in richly diverse cultures, distinct human experiences, and deep disagreements." Quoting Dr. Paul at length here:

The opening declaration [began] with the astonishing statement that "We believe in God who is both three and one, who holds difference and unity in the heart of God’s being, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit" and then connects this to ecclesiology by claiming "Our differences embodied in the Anglican Communion both challenge and deepen our experience of God in the other. As we join in God’s mission of reconciliation through Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, our differences are celebrated and redeemed, as we are made whole in the body of Christ. In that diverse whole, we more fully reflect the image of God". The theological statement represents a serious, arguably heretical, error in relation to the doctrine of God while the ecclesiological application of this seems to make difference and diversity central without drawing any distinction between types of difference, particularly the difference between truth and error. This may help explain the new "Many . . . Other" and "walking together . . . despite our deep disagreement” wordings in the Human Dignity call in relation to sexuality.

This call, if accepted by the Lambeth Conference presided over by Archbishop Justin six years later, effectively says "those who depart from Communion teaching will face no consequences". In fact, it goes further and effectively states "the consequence of their 'unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity' is that they render the Communion as a whole lacking a teaching and they require all churches in the Communion to recognise a plurality of views which everyone has to accept within Communion life". It is, I think impossible to see this as anything other than a shift from "communion Catholicism" to "autonomous inclusivism".

The one defence of the new draft call that has some weight is that it is at least speaking honestly about our realities. The problem is that it does so in a paradigm diametrically opposed to that which the Communion has developed and worked with until now.

So, there you have it, the dissolving of communion Catholicism into an autonomous inclusivism. I wonder, as I think about this, whether I am looking at a judgment of my developing ideas around St. Augustine's church. Am I looking at the weakness of a church built apart from circle drawing? And does communion Catholicism equate to a giant circle? Can a church be a hospital for the sick, or does it have to require idealogical sameness?

Just today I read an article by Joe Carter, a senior writer for the Gospel Coalition entitled "You can't love Jesus and Condone Immorality." In it he says, "The way God accepts us is 'just as I am, despite who I am, intending to change who I am.'" And he concludes, "We all have a choice to make: we can either choose to obey [Jesus] or admit we don't truly love him." It sure sounds like love, right?

I guess I'm starting to see a process, perhaps a lifelong process, where Joe Carter sees a single event. I guess I'm starting to wonder if the thickness of the communion Catholicism model--and who doesn't feel the safety and togetherness of such a model?--is really just an agreement to lie in the appropriate places. As Ian Paul said about the Archbishop's autonomous inclusivism model: "it is at least speaking honestly." What does honest unity look like? Does Joe Carter's bouncer-at-the-church-door policy produce honesty? I think Carter's is an over-realized expectation. It is circle drawing. And what is needed is eschatological hope providing a common horizon point, a Celestial City, toward which we all move. Such hope has no purchase with power-unto-conformity but only for weakness and prayer and the bitter miracle of the cross of Jesus.