Archive for February, 2009
Yesterday, today, and forever

I’m taking a certain amount of heat for declaring, as undeniable fact, that God does not show up in real life. That’s a good thing, because it promotes debate and discussion, and I’m prepared to show some easily verified reasons why I can legitimately and objectively make that claim. One of those reasons is the impact God’s absence has on Christian theology.

In his response to the post on Santa, Nessie and God, Jayman writes:

DD, I see the argument that you’re trying to make but I doubt it rings true to many Christians for two main reasons. First, your interpretation of the Bible and the motives you ascribe to God are not in line with the beliefs Christians actually hold. This means your arguments come across as attacking a straw man argument. Second, your appeal to real world truth back fires when it is made to people who believe they have experienced God in their lives. Such an appeal essentially disproves your argument in their mind.

We’ll deal with point two in a future post. Meanwhile, let’s look at the argument that Christians do not believe God ought to behave the way I say, and let’s throw in an earlier comment by cl:

Although I can’t speak for DD, from what I can glean of his writings in this series, any miracle can be relegated to ignorance - unless of course, God actually manifests and takes credit for the miracle - but even then, how do we know the being which manifests to take credit for the miracle is actually God?

These comments are related: they both have to do with the theology of what it is reasonable to expect God to be willing and able to do in real life.

I’ll get to my analysis in a moment, but first, let’s add a few more comments to our list to demonstrate something of the nature and extent of the impact God’s absence has on Christian theology. For example, this comment from Jayman:

DD, we’re in agreement that if god wanted to show himself to everyone at this very moment then we’d all know of his existence. But that’s the only kind of god you’ve disproven. You haven’t ruled out miracles from a different kind of god.

And this:

Hebrews 11:6 does not say that God wants to reveal himself to everyone at this very moment. Full participation with God is for the next age, not this one. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, DD is attacking a strawman god.

As I pointed out in an earlier post,

God is supposed to be a perfect, loving, merciful Heavenly Father Who is intimately involved in the lives and destinies of His children.

Each one of those links points back to a New Testament verse, typically quoting Jesus, in which God is described as having the characteristics, abilities, and motives I’ve listed. Since truth is consistent with itself, these alleged facts about God ought to enable us to make some reasonable predictions as to what we ought to see Him doing in real life. We would not, for example, infer that a God like that would send all Christians to Hell and cackle wickedly about how easy they were to deceive. These are ideas with predictable consequences, and therefore we ought to be able to make real-world observations that would tell us whether these consequences (and thus the premises that implied them) are really true.

These consequences, however, are not what Christians actually believe. Strange, but true. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with the consequences themselves: if we described a human father who was loving and kind and intimately involved in the lives and development of his children, we wouldn’t find anything strange at all in that father showing up and spending time, in person, tangibly present, in 2-way, face-to-face interactions with his children. But believers already know that God does not show up in real life. God’s pervasive and consistent absence puts severe constraints on what Christian theology is permitted to ascribe to God, and forces the present-day concept of God into a box so small as to exclude virtually anything that requires objectively-real existence on God’s part.

We can see this by comparing the Christian theology of God’s behavior in the present day versus His predicted behavior in the apocalyptic future. Christians know, here and now, that God does not show up in real life, leading to a constrained concept of what God can be expected to do. In the apocalyptic future, which no one has yet experienced, these constraints do not exist. Christians are free to envision God’s future behavior in a way that is finally consistent with the characteristics listed above—and they do:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…”

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.

Notice there are no objections here like, “How will we be able to be sure the photographs of New Jerusalem aren’t fakes?” or “How will future skeptics know these two glorious beings are the real Lord God Almighty and the Lamb?” There’s no question about “What do God and the Lamb need to do to prove, under these circumstances, that miracles are genuine?” In the future, God is supposed to be free to show up, and does show up, and therefore the evidentiary requirements of the most critical skeptic are easily satisfied. Nobody argues about which star in Orion’s belt is our sun once the real sun rises.

So in fact, there’s nothing unchristian or unbiblical about my assessment of what sort of behavior ought to result from the characteristics and motives the Bible ascribes to God. Even Christians describe God as showing up in unmistakable ways once the constraints of His known absence are removed. In the real world as we observe it today, however, God does not show up in this way, and His absence is so pervasive that it dictates strict limits on Christian theology. There’s no good reason for God not to show up, except for the fact that everybody already knows He does not, and therefore Christians have to retrofit their theology to conform to real-world constraints.

This is where the field of apologetics comes from: the need to rationalize theology in order to make the contradiction between dogma and reality less apparent. If we use forward-thinking (observing what consequences ought to result from God’s character and motives), we come up with a list of consequences that falsify Christian beliefs, because we don’t observe them in real life. Apologetics is backwards thinking: starting from the known conditions, and reasoning backwards to try and find some plausible-sounding scenario that reconciles the original premises with a reality in which God consistently and universally fails to show up.

Apologetics, consequently, results in a limited theology of God’s behavior that allows Him to be “real” in ways that don’t involve actually showing up in a Biblical sense. If God did show up in real life, such limitations would not only be unnecessary, but insulting to God. Jayman is right: modern Christian concepts of what it is possible for God to do are different from the consequences you would expect based on Biblical descriptions of God’s nature and desires. And they’re different in ways that are mandated by the undeniable fact that God does not show up.

So whenever we hear complaints like, “It’s too hard to know what a genuine miracle would look like,” or “How could we know it was really God even if He did show up?” it’s because God’s universally known, experienced, and verified absence is forcing theology to have those weaknesses and limitations. It’s an undeniable fact that even Christians cannot avoid.

Space Time Theorem and Judeo Christian Scripture

Three British astrophysicists published a paper in 1970. They proved the Space-Time theorem of General Relativity. The “big bang” or single moment in which the universe came into existence, was not only the origin of the matter and energy, but was also the origin of length, width, height and time. In other words time and space came into being at the “big bang.”

If time had a beginning the force or being that caused the origin of the universe would have to be outside of space and time.

Of all world religions, only Judeo-Christian scripture refers to a Creator that is outside of time itself. Only Judeo-Christian scripture says Time has a beginning

“The hope that we have in Jesus Christ was given to us before the beginning of time.”

Titus 1:2

“The Grace of God that we now experience was put into effect before the beginning of time.”

Timothy 1:9

XFiles Friday: Christians and pagans

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Drs. Geisler and Turek are trying to rebut a number of atheistic/skeptical objections to the story of the Resurrection, and so far they’ve relied heavily on the divide-and-conquer approach: tackle each argument individually, and claim that unless it can single-handedly explain every detail of the Gospel stories, it is entirely untrue and unworthy of consideration. It’s a similar tactic to the technique of denying the existence of a forest by proving that each individual tree, on its own, is not a forest, and thereby eliminating each tree, one by one, from consideration. Once all the trees have been disposed of, the forest is gone, because how can you have a forest with no trees?

This week’s installment is no different. Geisler and Turek address the topics of whether the disciples’ faith led them to believe in a Resurrection, and whether pagan resurrection myths played a role in the formulation of the text of the Gospels following the crucifixion. These are some very powerful ideas, because the crucifixion of Jesus would have left the disciples in a very shattered and vulnerable state of mind, in which any suggestive notion might find fertile ground for sowing new dogmas, much as the Great Disappointment of the Millerites paved the way for a new set of doctrines in the form of Seventh Day Adventism.

Clearly, it would not do, apologetically speaking, to consider what influence such ideas might have had on a group of men and women who were desperately seeking some explanation that would make sense of their great loss, and so Geisler and Turek try to dispose of these ideas as quickly as possible.  They start by objecting to the idea that the disciples’ faith could have produced the idea of a resurrection.

This theory was brought out well during the debate [John Dominic] Crossan [of the Jesus Seminar] had with William Lane Craig over the Resurrection. Crossan offered the theory that the disciples made up the Resurrection story because they “searched the Scriptures” after his death and found that “persecution, if not execution, was almost like a job description of being God’s elect.”

The entire two-hour debate turned on Craig’s response. He said, “Right. And that came after they experienced the resurrection appearances… The faith of the disciples did not lead to the [resurrection] appearances, but it was the appearances which led to their faith; they then searched the scriptures.”

Interestingly, Lane is inadvertently contradicting the Gospel story when he pretends that the disciples’ faith gave them no reason to suspect a resurrection until after it allegedly happened. The Gospels portray Jesus as plainly predicting and foretelling both his death and his resurrection on a number of occasions; if this were true, it would pull the rug out from under Lane’s assertion that the resurrection had to happen first, before the disciples would have any doctrinal basis for expecting it.

This argument might have worked if the disciples had been anyone other than the disciples. The problem is that many of the disciples, and all of the apostles, had been with Jesus for the entire three years of his ministry. Their faith was long since established before the crucifixion, let alone the alleged resurrection. They had heard Jesus preach and teach about spiritual truth, and not judging according to outward appearances. They already knew how Jesus was turning traditional Jewish teachings on their heads, and proclaiming bold new insights into the true meaning of spirituality. Jesus might or might not have planted the idea of a resurrection in their heads before his death, but even if he didn’t, he certainly had them mentally and intellectually equipped to re-interpret their devastating loss as a profoundly spiritual triumph. A man who could be a door and a vine, and who could give you his body and blood to eat and drink, might be capable of almost anything.

This becomes especially significant when you consider the possibility that the disciples might have been familiar with the resurrection stories of the pagan religions. I know it’s hard to believe that anyone back then might have had theological disputes with those whose faith was different, but it is possible that such interchanges occurred. Again, just the germ of an idea is all that would be needed in order for a new kind of spiritual experience to take root and blossom into a full-blown “resurrection” experience during the emotional and psychological trauma of early bereavement. Pagan ideas, coupled with Christian notions about how God works spiritually and surprisingly, would give them a powerful source for resurrection ideas and even experiences.

Geisler and Turek try to discount this possibility by appealing to the initial emotional shock of the disciples.

Indeed, the scared, scattered, skeptical disciples were not of the mind to invent a resurrection story and then go out and die for it. They were of the mind to go and hide for fear of the Jews! It was the resurrection that gave them bold faith, not the other way around.

What Geisler and Turek overlook is that this objection only works if you assume the disciples would have had to consciously conspire to present a story they knew was false. Because of their Christian faith, however, this is not necessarily the case. Christians even today convince themselves that Jesus is present whenever two or more are gathered in his name, and persuade themselves that they are receiving “messages” from God (whether or not any visible, audible, or tangible message is present). The nature of Christian faith is such that it is free from such mundane necessities as having actual, physical reality correspond to what you believe in. Consequently, the mere fact of having faith in a resurrection would be sufficient to give them the boldness to turn around and confront the world with their beliefs.

Notice, also, that people are often even more bold and forthright in proclaiming their faith when their faith has no verifiable, external basis. They cannot show anyone else that what they say is true, and therefore they must compensate by putting extra fervency into their witness. Watch a Mormon and a traditional Christian argue over their various scriptures and miracles and what-not. The weaker the basis for one’s faith, the harder they have to work to establish it, and the more confidently they assert it, if only to reassure themselves.

Inevitably, Geisler and Turek trot out the divide and conquer defense.

In addition to the fact that there’s no evidence for his theory, Crossan cannot account for the resurrection appearances to more than 500 people. Nor can he account for the empty tomb or the Jewish attempt to explain it.

Either it explains everything , or it explains nothing, and it clearly does not explain everything, so we should simply dismiss it and pay no more attention to whatever it could and probably would have contributed to the phenomenon as a whole. That’s Geisler and Turek’s approach anyway, but it’s denialism, not skepticism. True skepticism would want to look at the whole picture, and see how the parts contribute to the whole, in order to draw an evidence-based conclusion. Geisler and Turek, however, merely want to dispose of the evidence, because it weakens their claim that only a genuine, materialistic resurrection could possibly account for the NT stories.

As for the contributions of pagan myths, Geisler and Turek once again try to simply discredit and dismiss the evidence entirely. Their first tactic is the trick they used earlier: taking a specialized, technical definition of “myth” and then arguing that absolutely nothing about the NT is mythical in any sense, just because there are characteristics that don’t fit the special, technical sense.

[T]he New Testament is anything but mythological. Unlike pagan myths, the New Testament is loaded with eyewitness evidence and real historical figures, and it is corroborated by several outside sources. C. S. Lewis, a writer of myths himself, has commented that the New Testament stories do not show signs of being mythological. “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job,” said Lewis. “And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”

What’s missing from this passage is any consideration of the less formal sorts of myths and legends that arise through hearsay, rumor, and the occasional outright hoax. The legend of Bigfoot, or Area 51, or the Bab, would also fail to meet Lewis’ strictly scholastic criteria for what constitutes a valid “legend” in literary criticism, but this does not mean that they are “anything but mythological.” They’re simply a different type of mythology than the Greek classics Lewis is focusing on.

Geisler and Turek’s second trick is, well, maybe you can guess…

Second, the pagan-myth theory can’t explain the empty tomb, the martyrdom of the eyewitnesses, or the testimony of the non-Christian writings. Nor can it explain the evidence that leads nearly all scholars to accept the other historical facts we listed at the beginning of the chapter.

Once again, Geisler and Turek plead with us to please jump to the conclusion that a historical factor cannot have anything whatsoever to do with prompting a superstitious belief in a Resurrection, unless it can magically and single-handedly explain every aspect of the stories that have come down to us over the past couple millennia.

From here it goes down hill. Geisler and Turek’s next argument appears to confuse the concept of borrowing from pagan resurrection myths, with the notion that the disciples were trying to convert people to explicitly pagan mythologies.

Third, ancient non-Christian sources knew that the New Testament writers were not offering mythical accounts. “The earliest Jewish and pagan critics of the resurrection understood the Gospel writers to be making historical claims, not writing myth or legend. They merely disputed the plausibility of those claims.”

Well of course the disciples were claiming the resurrection as physical fact. You don’t go around converting people to your religion by saying, “Hey, how would you like to buy into this story I just made up?” (Well, not if your name isn’t L. Ron Somebody or other, at least.) It’s hard to believe that Geisler and Turek seriously failed to grasp the point that the role of pagan resurrection stories would be to suggest the idea for possible adoption as a Christian spiritual truth. Nobody is seriously arguing that the disciples went around hollering “Pagan myths for sale, get your pagan myths here!”

Geisler and Turek have three more objections to voice, but I’m running out of time for this session, so we’ll save those for next week. If we’re lucky, we’ll polish those off fairly quickly, and then get to sit back and enjoy a real treat: Geisler and Turek pointedly and smugly asking, “Do You Have Any Evidence for That?”

Stay tuned.

Cross-examining Zeitoun, continued

Picking up where we left off from yesterday’s post, we find Jayman making some assumptions about the nature of the “apparitions”:

Fascinating, isn’t it? A projected (hoaxed) image would need something like smoke or clouds to project onto, and that’s just what we have at Zeitoun!

If an image were projected into smoke wouldn’t it obviously be a fake if one were to move to a different angle? What did they use when no smoke was present?

Any decent light show can do as much, and we’ve had non-electrical light sources for a lot longer than we’ve had electricity (ever hear of limelight, or flares?).

Care to provide an example of a light show that is convincing from multiple angles? It would also be helpful if it worked from more than 15 miles away. I tried searching for some light shows but all the images and videos were not what we need for this kind of hoax.

Jayman is assuming that the image in and of itself was convincing, and that any projector would have to be at least 15 miles away, neither of which is necessarily true. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to be convinced by what you think you are seeing, even when it does not correspond to what you’re actually looking at. People were convinced, but that is no guarantee, in and of itself, that their conviction was the result of an unimpeachable phenomenon. We need to look at whatever evidence we can obtain, to verify (or disconfirm) their conclusions.

On what basis can you call the parish superstitious and credulous? They apparently allowed numerous investigations into the matter and are in a much better position than you to know what happened. Also, I would think their Muslim neighbors (the majority of Egyptians) would have liked nothing more than to show this to be a hoax. It’s very un-Islamic for Mary to be bowing before a cross. All they had to do was put something between the projector and the smoke and the hoax would be found. Yet they could find nothing in a 15 mile radius.

The reason I called them superstitious is because they saw the projected image of an obvious icon, they smelled the smoke of the incense, and they jumped to the conclusion that this could only be the result of some kind of supernatural intervention. The longer I study this case, though, the less convinced I am that they even saw the projected icon. But we’ll get to that below. The fact that they allowed “investigations” is neither here nor there, since a good hoaxter will be only too glad to obtain the stamp of approval of some recognized authority, provided they feel they can get away with it.

Jayman raises the interesting issue of the Muslim attitude towards all this, which is not quite as simple as he might suggest. Muslims believe that Jesus was a genuine prophet of Allah, second only to Mohammed himself, and in fact Mohammed rather piggybacks on Jesus’ reputation, so discrediting Jesus would also discredit Mohammed, who accepted Jesus as valid. It’s true, however, that Muslims would object to seeing a “divine apparition” venerating a cross in what they would consider an idolatrous manner. In fact, they’re rather zealous about this sort of thing.

We would expect, therefore, that devout Muslims would not sanction these apparitions as genuine, even if they did see them with their own eyes. Yet the story from Zeitoun claims that Muslims did confirm these visions as genuine. And that brings us to a consideration of the two types of evidence from Zeitoun.

Jayman’s original reason for mentioning Zeitoun was to provide an example of how skeptics respond when confronted with photographic evidence. Most of the evidence from Zeitoun, however, is not photographic. It’s stories, word-of-mouth, hearsay. It’s what people say they believe they saw, or what they say they heard someone say that they believe they saw. And these stories don’t always add up, or prove to be consistent with the evidence.

The alleged reaction of Muslims is a case in point. The stories claim that Muslims witnessed the same things as the Christians, and were convinced that these “apparitions” were real. If that were the case, however, the Muslim reaction would have been different. Jayman’s point in mentioning Zeitoun was to try and prove that unbelievers will refuse to believe the evidence of their own eyes even when it’s right in front of them. If so, we ought to see Muslims denying the apparitions, due to the conflict with their deeply-held religious beliefs. They ought to have been even more skeptical than I’ve been. Yet the story claims they weren’t. Inconsistency.

One explanation for their non-antagonistic response would be if they didn’t actually see any veneration going on. If the actual phenomenon was merely amorphous blobs of light, which allowed people to “see”  the visions they expected to find there (like I saw the different handwriting styles at the seance), then the Muslims would not see anything idolatrous. Their preconceived ideas about Mary (whom they revere as a Muslim saint as well) would lead them to perceive her as behaving in an orthodox Muslim fashion. The lack of definite detail would give each viewer the freedom to perceive whatever behavior he or she found most appropriate in a “divine apparition.”

There is other evidence, too, that the stories are inconsistent with the actual facts of the case. For example, Jayman responds to another commenter with the following:

The church was floodlit, which would not be conducive for projecting an image.

Here is a picture, taken slightly above rooftop level, showing an image of the “apparition”.

Notice, there are no floodlights on the roof, nor are there any above the roof. If there are floodlights, they must be on the ground, pointing up at the roof. This conclusion is reinforced by another photo, showing light shining up on parts of the rooftop structures, while leaving much of the roof area itself in deep shadow.

If we were taking pictures of an actual three-dimensional figure illuminated by floodlights from below, we ought to see the kind of “spooky-face” upside down shadows you get around the campfire when you hold the flashlight under your chin. Instead, we see images like this one:

Notice, the image shows Mary as being quite clearly illuminated from above and slightly behind, not from below and in front. In fact, if you look at the lighting in the images in general, you’ll notice that the shadows seem rather odd, i.e. either entirely missing, or inconsistent with the surrounding lighting.

What’s missing from the evidence at Zeitoun is any kind of photographic evidence taken from the roof itself. Even if piety forbade you to climb to the rooftop during a manifestation, you would have ample time during a 3-year period of steady manifestations to set up a number of remote-control cameras—assuming you wanted people to see what was really up there in the shadows.

The photographs we do have could easily be faked by either double-exposure (to produce the glowing images) or by using a simple dodge technique while printing the photographs. In fact, it would be particularly helpful, while producing such fake images, to overexpose the “apparition” so as to wash out any underlying detail and thus obscure the evidence. I’ve already noted that the photos of the “doves” flying around at night are curiously missing the inevitable streaks of motion blur that would result from photographing moving objects under low-light conditions. And have a look at this photo (helpfully labeled “REAL photo,” so we know it’s not fake).

Notice, it’s quite clearly a daylight photo, with the sun shining down on the heads of the spectators, and casting harsh, high-contrast shadows around the ears and under the eaves and archways of the church. Yet the sky above the ghostly image is dark, and the borders where the sky approaches the church dome and structures is quite clearly smudged and irregular, as though an artist had not dared to try and match the borders of the foreground exactly.

The more I look at Zeitoun, the more it looks to me like the actual apparition was just blobs of light, such as you would get from shining (non-electrical) lights on a simple cloud of smoke, augmented by people’s desire to see a miracle and by a number of clearly faked photographs. And yes, I know that the story says that some “expert” pronounced that the photos could not possibly be the result of photomontage. But that’s the hearsay evidence, the story that is neither backed up by, nor consistent with, the photographic evidence we do see.

The definition of gullibility is when you believe whatever someone tells you, just because they tell you, despite a lack of evidence or even the presence of contradictory evidence. Jayman originally suggested Zeitoun because of the physical evidence, but when that evidence failed to pan out, he had nothing left to appeal to but the assumption that we ought to believe whatever the Egyptians tell us, just because they say so, and despite inconsistencies within their stories, and between the stories and the photographs.

Zeitoun is either a hoax, or a genuine miracle that has been deliberately constructed so as to have all the hallmarks of a hoax. Since the world is blatantly free of the day-vs-night sort of consequences that would result from the existence of a God Who genuinely loved us and wanted us to be saved by knowing and believing in Him, I think we can safely eliminate the latter conjecture.

Cross-examining Zeitoun

I’ve managed to catch up to the comments on my post about the “apparitions” at Zeitoun, finally. Jayman, naturally enough, would like to rebut my observations, but I think the facts are against him, as noted below.

Oddly, though the Wikipedia entry claims that these apparitions were seen by skeptical observers (including President Nasser), I have not been able to find any first hand reports from these sources.

I don’t think you will be able to do a full-blown investigation of this apparition by merely using the internet. Plus, many primary sources are in Arabic.

If the facts are not available, then they’re not available. Certain facts are available, however. That means there’s some selective reporting going on. And the information that is available is being published by an organization which is receiving a multi-million dollar revenue stream from people believing the apparitions are real. There’s certainly a conflict of interest there, as far as unbiased reporting of the facts is concerned. But let’s see what we can glean from the facts we do have.

I think it’s safe to say that we do have enough facts in hand to draw a reasonable conclusion that Zeitoun was a (highly profitable) hoax. For instance:

There’s an indirect indication, however, in the fact that the police are said to have investigated the apparitions by looking for a projector of some sort. Apparently there was something about these phenomena that suggested a projected image rather than a tangible, physical manifestation. Additionally there was some suspicion that the photographs might have been faked or tampered with in some way.

I think the Wikipedia article is noting that the obvious natural explanations have been investigated.

In other words, there are obvious natural explanations, including projected images and faked photographs. Yes, these possibilities have been “investigated,” but by whom, and how thoroughly? James Randi doesn’t seem to have been invited, nor anyone else with the experience and training to root out this sort of fraudulent activity.

And the local police aren’t stupid: a multi-million dollar tourist/pilgrim trade means a tremendous boost in the prosperity of the whole district, including increased tax revenues and thus better funding for government offices like the police department. Once again, there’s a conflict of interest. I wouldn’t accuse them of anything dishonest, of course, but the fact remains that your ability to discern between A and B is influenced if A means third-world poverty for your entire district and B means prosperity and relative affluence for all (including family and friends). It’s nice that the police made an investigation, but they weren’t really the right group for the job, under the circumstances. Besides, since when is it a crime to use a projector?

Looking at the first indicator, there are a few things which would be consistent with a hoax based on projecting an image of Mary. First of all, the apparitions would be most visible after dark.

How would a projection work when lights were on around the church? Wouldn’t the source of the projection be obvious (especially when they cut power to the whole area)?

As I mentioned before, non-electrical projectors have been around for a lot longer than electrical ones have, so cutting the power would only reduce the amount of light pollution, and make the projection easier to see. And the source wouldn’t necessarily be obvious if you didn’t know exactly where to look. A simple baffle could ensure that light only went in the direction of the actual projection.

And you’d need something to project the image onto: a screen, or a sheet of acetate, or a fine nylon or silk mesh, or a mist, or some kind of smoke: anything that could reflect and/or scatter light enough to hold an image.

Wouldn’t a projector result in a 2D image? You need to posit a system where the apparition can be viewed from different angles without the hoax being found out.

I think the hoax has been found out, at least by those who base their conclusions on the evidence. It would look like a 2D projected image, and it did, which is why the police were looking for a projector instead of seeking a (3-dimensional) actor in a costume or something. If it had not looked like a projection, they would not have been looking for a projector. Plus, if you look at the photographs themselves, you can see that different viewing angles do not produce the change in shape and relative position that would come from shifting your perspective. The two different images of the dove flying over “Mary’s” head are identical, both in their form (and pose) and in their relative distance above her head.

Check it out: Mary has her space helmet on.

You can’t tell on the first or third image, but the head is most certainly in front of the halo on the second image. I even ran the second image through some image analysis software just to be sure.

I was being a bit facetious there. The point is that the “halo” was always painted as a perfectly circular disk behind the saint’s head, but “behind” is determined relative to the painter’s point of view, not the angle at which the viewer approaches the icon. It was a non-literal symbol in any case, and was never intended to suggest that the persons depicted went around with glowing disks behind their heads in real life.

What we’ve got here is a double-whammy: the halo shouldn’t be showing up at all, since it’s an iconographic symbol rather than a literal glowing disk. And even if it did show up, it should appear as an ellipse rather than a perfect circle, unless you happened to view it from exactly the same angle as the original iconographer who originally painted it. But it doesn’t: it’s a perfect circle from all angles. A globe could do that, if it’s around the person’s head (hence the flippant reference to a space helmet), but the stereotypical “halo” ought to be 3-dimensional, which would make it an ellipse from most angles.

Also, it sounds like you are complaining that the apparition is both too much like icons and too little like icons. Of course it couldn’t be an actual icon since there aren’t video icons. Ultimately, Mary’s form is not important in determining whether or not a hoax took place.

No, I’m only pointing out that the images are not merely like the icons, they are the icons, complete with literal representations of non-literal, non-representational symbols like doves and halos. And having looked over the available materials, I have to say that the only videos I’ve found are videos about the so-called apparitions, in which the only video segments showing the “apparition” are zooming and panning shots of photographs. We don’t have any “video icons” to explain.

The reason “Mary’s” form is important is because it highlights the fact that an appeal is being made to superstitious gullibility here. We are expected to connect the appearance of obvious icons as being a genuinely divine apparition, on the basis of familiarity with a number of art works that reflect what the iconographer imagined Mary might look like. Apart from traditional symbols, icons of Mary don’t necessarily look like each other, let alone matching the original appearance of the original Mary.

Therefore it’s highly significant to note that these “apparitions” are literally and unmistakably the images of icons, and not an apparition of Mary herself. You have to appeal to the idea that Mary magically shape-shifted in some way in order to promote the Church’s claims here. But if it were a genuine apparition, why would you need to make excuses for why Mary does not look like the real, original Mary?

I’m out of time for today, so we’ll pick this up again tomorrow.

Breaking the law(s)

Jayman continues to press his case:

Your confidence in natural explanations seems strange in two ways:

(A) You have confidence that events that severely contradict the currently understood laws of nature will one day have natural explanations. This confidence is apparently based on faith in science. Yet the findings of modern science would have to be heavily modified in order to explain such events adequately. Some balance between confidence and lack of confidence in modern science seems necessary for you. Ironically, a believer in miracles could have more faith than you do in modern science and see events that contradict the currently understood laws of nature as clearly not having natural causes.

(B) You have confidence that events that have remained inexplicable for all of human history will be found to have natural causes. One could just as confidently assert that a natural explanation for these types of events will never be found.

Let’s look at (B) first. Jayman is correct to say that one could just as well expect that the causes for some phenomena will never be found as to assert that they will be found to be  natural causes. We’ll probably never know, for instance, what killed the last pterosaur, since it was a death that occurred millions of years before there were any humans to investigate it. Notice, however, that neither assertion obliges us to infer any kind of supernatural intervention. We don’t know how the last pterosaur died, but that doesn’t mean we’re justified in assuming it was pitchforked to death by a demon. Humans are not omniscient, and therefore it is only to be expected that there will be things we never know. Mere ignorance does not give us a valid basis for asserting the existence of supernatural causes.

Jayman’s paragraph (A) is a bit more problematic, as it is based on the assumption that we actually have “events that severely contradict the currently understood laws of nature.” None of the examples we’ve been discussing so far involve any verifiable violation of currently understood natural laws, nor am I aware of any such examples elsewhere (quantum phenomena being a boundary case where the laws of physics are not so much violated as poorly understood).

Take Bernadette, for example. She had a medical problem involving a tethered spinal cord. She underwent surgery intended to relieve her symptoms. Following the third surgery (a bit too long after the surgery to suit her), she experienced the relief the surgery was intended to produce. The doctors involved don’t know exactly why it took so long to work, or what specific factors kicked in to produce the change, but it violates no natural laws if doctors can’t always follow the exact workings of a highly complex organism like the human body.

Likewise the images at Zeitoun are unexplained (as far as the audience is concerned), but there’s no apparent violation of natural laws involved. The photographs show quite clearly that the “apparitions” are images of icons, complete with iconographic symbols that do not represent the literal appearance of the person portrayed. We’ve had the technology for “magic lanterns” since the 1800’s (and probably earlier, I’m too lazy to look that one up right now), and there’s a clear financial motivation for a hoax.

As for having a confidence based on faith in science, I’m not sure if that was intended to shame me somehow, or to bolster the reputation for “faith,” but as I’ve said before, there are two kinds of faith: faith that arises because of the evidence, and faith that arises because of the lack of evidence. Evidence-based faith is true faith, because it’s based on the principle that truth is consistent with itself. I can have evidence-based faith in the probability that currently unknown causes will turn out to be natural causes, because this is consistent with what we have found in the past, whenever we’ve discovered what the actual answer was.

Evidence-free faith, by contrast, is mere gullibility, since it is an unfounded trust in whatever men tell us (or in what we tell ourselves). Indeed, it is not uncommon for evidence-free faith to be not merely lacking in evidence, but actually contradicted by it. Such faith is not based on the principle that truth is consistent with itself, and stands in opposition to it.

As an Evangelical Realist, I am quite proud to proclaim that I practice and promote evidence-based faith as the only true and trustworthy type of faith there is. The caveat is that this kind of faith will only let you believe in things that really exist, but that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! Evidence-free faith will let you believe whatever you like, which might seem more satisfying (in the same sense that taking drugs can make you feel good), but which is ultimately a Very Bad Idea.

Let’s look at a couple more points before we go:

You are correct that “corollary evidence” may exist. Unfortunately you appear to think the examples you have chosen prove your point. They’d only prove a point if your assumptions were correct.

My only assumption is that truth is consistent with itself. This consistency has two aspects: truth does not contradict itself, and truth does not exist in isolation. The latter aspect is a bit less obvious than the former, but what I mean is that real-world truth always has corollaries. It’s not just that they may exist, it’s that they must exist. That’s part of the nature of objective reality. We can do mental manipulations on concepts that have been so abstracted that they have nothing to do with anything else, but in the real world everything is interconnected, and the interconnections are all perfectly consistent with one another.

It’s this consistent interconnectedness that makes science possible, and that allows us to discover one thing by observing another. And likewise, it’s characteristic of untruth that this perfectly self-consistent interconnectedness is broken and missing at some point, which is how we discover that untruths are not true. Any time we discover a lie or an error, we make the discovery based on finding the point at which the untruth fails to connect with the perfect self-consistency of real-world truth.

The believer in a past miracle would base the belief on historical inquiry. Your test for consistency with “real-world truth” seems to be nothing more than consistency with your own, personal life experiences for there’s no logical inconsistency in believing that Jesus rose from the dead. Moreover, judging past events based on your modern experience is error-prone since the past was different than the present.

Past, present or future, the truth is consistent with itself. There may be some things that change over time, but the self-consistency of the truth is not one of them. Otherwise, how will we ever know if Zeus was really just a myth, and not an actual God?

We have stories from the past. How can we know if these stories are true, unless we are allowed to examine them to see if they’re consistent with what we find in the real world? We’ve been watching Geisler and Turek try to argue that Jesus must have risen from the dead based on history, but they’ve been using a double standard: when it came to trivial details like who was governor, or how far away some city was, they evaluated the story based on how consistent it was with what we can observe in the real world. They used the same standard I insist on, and thus performed like real historians.

As soon as it came to the extraordinary claims, however, Geisler and Turek abandoned this standard and acted like we should believe whatever the Gospel writers tell us (even when they contradict each other), just because they say so. Instead of consistently applying the historical principle that we should test the NT writers’ claims in the light of real-world evidence, Geisler and Turek used trivial historical accuracies to try and argue that we should never doubt what the writers tell us. They used the historical principle to try and talk us out of using the historical principle!

Why the sudden switch from verification based on consistency with real-world observations, to “verification” based purely on uncritical trust in whatever men say? Because Geisler and Turek know that if you evaluate the Gospel claims in terms of consistency with real-world observations, the Gospel fails the test. The genuine historical method only confirms the trivial details of the Gospel story, and leaves all the crucial points disconfirmed. Applied consistently, the historical method argues against the supernatural, not for it.

If we can’t evaluate the past by checking for consistency with real-world truth, we have no way to know whether any ancient stories were true or false. That’s not our fault, nor is it our fault that God fails to show up in real life, so that we could have a real-world basis for saying, “Yes, the Bible stories are consistent with what we can observe in the real world.”

A God Who loved us enough to give His only begotten Son would be concerned enough about our salvation to provide us with a valid basis for concluding that the Gospels were true, so even if we ignore the fact that He ought to be showing up just for the sake of loving to have 2-way personal interaction with us, He still ought to be showing up. The fact that He does not is a serious inconsistency between real-world truth and the things men say about Him in the Gospel.

The Department of Experimental and Applied Theology

Commenter cl brings up an interesting point:

I was rereading through the thread here, and this caught my attention:

“The Inescapable Consequence is that we have no basis for our conclusions regarding God, other than to put our trust in the words, speculations, and feelings of men. This is a serious consequence, because it means so-called faith in God is really just trust in fallible men (who happen to contradict themselves, each other, and observable reality).”

I disagree and feel you’ve presented an either/or fallacy. Reasonable believers engage in a form of testing that is systematic and analogous to empiricism. When I was a kid, I performed such experiments, for example here. Mind you, this particular experiment yielded negative results. Point is, your statement claims that epistemologically, the only thing believers can do is trust the words of fallible men (and women) when at least one other option clearly exists. Such is incorrect.

I stand by my original claim, but now that cl has brought this up, I can see that I need to clarify it somewhat. I’m not saying you can’t try to obtain information about God using methods that lend some sort of empirical verifiability to the results. I’m just pointing out that such attempts will not be successful in God’s absence, and will end up reverting to whatever significance well-intentioned men inadvertently project onto them.

Theology is the most purely theoretical of all the disciplines men call “sciences.” There is no such thing as experimental or applied theology, because there’s no object in the real world to apply your experimental methods to. Cl does have a point in that it is possible to draw negative conclusions about God using an objective and unbiased observational and experimental technique. So long as God does not show up in real life, however, we cannot put our faith in Him, because He doesn’t show up to give us anything to believe in. If we do believe, the content and basis for our belief must be found in the things men say and think and feel about God. It is, and can only ever be, faith in men.

This is true even if we suppose that it might be possible to observe actual supernatural phenomena. The supernatural is defined by its violation of the normal and natural laws of cause and effect. It is effectively indistinguishable from magic, and is thus immune to the sort of investigation that discovers actual causes by tracing the natural chain of cause and effect backwards to its source. We don’t and can’t know how supernatural causes are related to observed effects, because the supernatural, by definition, lies outside the domain of scientific laws and theories.

In the quote above, cl links to a test he tried in which he asked God to fix a broken watch. The test result was that the watch was not miraculously repaired, but suppose it had been? Would this have told us anything about God? No, that would be jumping to a conclusion, because we don’t know anything about what might cause a watch to magically self-repair. We might speculate that some god or other magical spirit was the cause, but it could also be a Spontaneous Magical Entropy Reversal Field, or perhaps cl himself possesses suppressed and unsuspected magical powers. Or it might be some magical phenomenon that was entirely unknown. We do not know, and there is no objective and reliable means by which we can ever find out. By definition, that’s how the supernatural works.

People invoke “the supernatural” as a means of explaining away the lack of scientific verification for the things they want to believe. The reason science could not confirm their beliefs, they say, is because the agency they propose is “supernatural,” and the supernatural is impervious to scientific exploration. That works ok as a rationalization, but the downside is that it means that “supernatural” phenomena can never reveal any more to us than the actual, observable effects they produce. Everything behind the observable effect is just so much “magic.”

Thus, the only way we can learn anything about God, or at least anything that we could put our faith in, is if God were to show up in real life, so as to be directly observable. Ordinary scientific inferences cannot work as a source of new, reliable information about causes that do not obey fundamental naturalistic principles. We can devise tests that work negatively, so as to rule out the possibility of superstitious beliefs (or that at least demonstrate the lack of valid reasons for drawing such superstitious conclusions). But we cannot trace backwards along the chain of cause and effect if the cause supernaturally skips the chain and proceeds directly to the effect via magic.

The coming age of post-materialism

As individuals and as a global society, we face some seemingly difficult social and issues these days. One generalization about the things troubling the world at present is that materialism is causing much of the ills being experienced in our global community. Systems such as capitalism emphasize on amassing the highest profits at the lowest cost and (many times) even if such measures will negatively affect the environment, human lives, or other barriers to attaining higher profits. A recent study showed something that in hindsight seems quite obvious…that low self esteem increases materialism, and materialism can also create low self-esteem. Such frightening conclusions have lead to the striving towards a postmaterialist world.

A shift to postmaterialist values will likely gain momentum as people, governments, and corporations take the following steps:

  • Face the implications of population and consumption growth for pollution, climate change, and environmental destruction
  • Realize that materialist values make for less happy lives
  • Identify and promote things in life that matter more than economic growth
  • Understand and experience the nature of the oneness and interconnectedness of all things and people

As the Czech poet-president Vaclav Havel once said, “If the world is to change for the better it must have a change in human consciousness”. We must discover “a deeper sense of responsibility toward the world, which means responsibility something higher than self [or the ego]“. Close and supportive relationships are a key element in an individual’s well-being, not a new car or some other material possession. One of the benefits that was illustrated in a previous blog entry entitled The global economic crisis as a positive event, was that less focus on material possessions is occurring and more focus towards interpersonal relationships and experiences which no along with those close relational ties. The states of consciousness such as peace, love, and happiness can be achieved more often and for greater periods of time when human beings understand that a postmaterialism world that will ensure a sustainable and survivable future is the best path to take at this critical decision point in humanity’s timeline.

Seven points to ponder

From Jayman, seven points to ponder, and my response to each:

(1) I think it’s self-evident that calculating the number of miracles per year in the U.S. based solely on the percentage of Americans claiming to have witnessed a miracle is poor methodology.

It’s poor methodology only because we know, from real life experiences, that genuine miracles do not happen often enough to justify the conclusion that the odds of your having seen a miracle are within 2 percentage points of being a simple coin flip. That was why I immediately called a reality check on that statistic. We know that at least the overwhelming majority of those reported sightings are people applying the designation “miracle” to things that are merely amazing. Since, however, these reported instances of miracles are generally uniform (i.e. there is no one miracle that stands so far above the rest as to make it obvious that the others are fake), it would not be the least bit surprising if all of these cases turned out to be consistent with what we find in the overwhelming majority of cases. Because most of these purported miracles are not genuine, we have a reasonable basis for inferring that the rest are also not genuine, especially given the uniformity of the reports. No feature distinguishes a subset of genuine miracles from the larger pool of false miracles, giving us a further reasonable basis for inferring that no such subset exists. Whenever we take a random sample of specific cases of alleged miracles, we find (a) that they do not involve God actually showing up and (b) that they are not actually miraculous, but merely amazing in some way. Every time we do this, with every random sample or with samples selected by believers as exceptionally good, and find that the miracle once again is not genuine, it reinforces the reasonable conclusion that there are no genuine miracles to discover. The uniformly consistent nature of the documented findings is highly suggestive of the self-consistency of the truth itself, and therefore it is reasonable and advisable to draw the conclusion that these are not genuine miracles. And in any case, we have no good reason not to draw the skeptical conclusion. The reasonable conclusion should therefore stand, at least pending verifiable evidence to the contrary.

(2) Disagreements still occur even when we have tons of information and the subject is objective (e.g., Holocaust denial).

True, but only one side, at most, can properly claim to have the verifiable evidence to support their conclusions. The question in any disagreement is, who has the facts to back up their claims?

(3) Science can only study historical phenomena to the extent that past events leave behind artifacts; and even then the artifacts don’t tell the whole story. There are few miracle stories I have heard where we would expect to have something like an archeaological record of the event.

Physical artifacts are only one possible consequence that ought to be examined for consistency with the hypothesis. The Gospels propose a God Who is not willing that any should perish, a loving Heavenly Father Who ought to serve as a perfect example of how mortal fathers ought to interact with their own children. This implies that we ought to expect a huge volume of information, including personal interactions, visible, audible and tangible manifestations, and physical artifacts. The fact that we do not, and that we use the term “miracle” to mean something that virtually never happens, indicates that the original hypothesis is flawed.

(4) My words may have been somewhat ambiguous, but I intended merely to say that there are many stories that do not have natural explanations according to our current understanding of nature. I did not intend, nor did I explicitly state, that natural explanations will never be possible for such stories.

That’s a good thing, and Jayman is to be commended for his objectivity. All that remains to be said, then, is that the absence of a natural explanation is not, in itself, evidence of God, but merely evidence of the undeniable reality of human non-omniscience. Mere ignorance of what caused something to happen does not justify drawing the inference that God caused it to happen, and in fact it is superstitious to draw any such inference on that basis.

(5) You realize that people are not omniscient yet you make a claim (that God has never acted) which only an omniscient being could know is true.

This is not true. The brute force approach is not the only possible approach to discovering knowledge. I have not personally examined each and every one of the 116 million people who think they’ve seen genuine miracles, yet I daresay that I know they all have lungs (or at least, the living ones do), because the absence of lungs would imply a remarkable state of affairs that would be worthy of note, and yet no such case is noted. I do not require omniscience to know that they all have lungs, I need merely apply the principle that the truth is consistent with itself. The same technique allows us to know that, in the absence of the tremendous and undeniable consequences that would result if God did show up in real life, we can safely conclude that God does not show up in real life, despite the facility with which people superstitiously ascribe things to Him whenever they are amazed.

(6) I’m curious how you would respond if God did physically manifest himself and cause something to happen. I’m guessing you would still come up with rationalizations. This being’s claims to be God would not be good enough. The mere fact that he worked inexplicable wonders would not be proof that he was really God. Etc.

This is also not true, and it seems a bit self-congratulatory as well, as though Jayman wished to claim that his personal virtue and insight were in some way superior to mine and others’. I trust this is an inadvertent implication. The issue here is not how skeptics would or would not react if God really did show up in real life. That’s a moot point currently; we can worry about that when and if God ever does show up. In the meantime, what we actually observe in real life is a world that is devoid of the most fundamental and obvious consequences that would result if there really were a loving Heavenly Father Who wanted us to be saved by knowing Him. Believers know from experience that God does not show up in real life, and have responded by substantially lowering their expectations for what ought to constitute “showing up,” to the point that God does not even need to be real to satisfy them. This allows them to pretend that skeptics are being unreasonable when they expect God to behave as though the Gospel were telling the truth about Him. It’s backwards thinking: letting present day limitations dictate what predictions you make based on the initial premise, instead of predicting the consequences that would naturally be implied by the premise itself.

(7) You make the false assumption that the Spirit cannot interact and associate with believers in a personal and tangible way. And the distinction between believer and unbeliever is relevant because God has shown up for me but not for you.

I can safely say, without fear of refutation, that God has not shown up for Jayman any more than He showed up for me when I was a believer. At best, Jayman can claim to have had some personal, subjective experience that amazed him enough to make him feel warranted in concluding that God was involved in some way. Muslims do the same thing with Allah; Mormons, with their polytheistic Trinity; Hindus with whatever deity they appeal to. In Shinto, it doesn’t even need to be a full deity, and in spiritism it might just be the ghost of your dear departed grandma. This does not require that any of these beings actually exist, it merely requires that the subject be amazed, which is not all that hard to do. If this happens in a context of community expectation, peer pressure, or autosuggestion, it’s even easier.

One time I attended a seance—an assembly of spiritists, actually. Church for ghosts. Several people were doing “automatic writing,” which supposedly involves spirits guiding the pen of the medium and sending messages in writing, as opposed to physically manifesting, or speaking through the medium’s vocal cords. This was during my young, evangelical Christian days, so I attributed it all to demonic activity, naturally. But one lady in particular seemed especially gifted. You could tell when a different spirit “took over” her pen, because each ghost had its own unique handwriting, and the people were laughing about how you could tell the gender of the spirit by their writing style (which prompted one ghost to rebuke them by saying “No, I am not a woman!”).

By this point, I was secretly praying for the Holy Spirit’s protection, because I was sure there were several demons in the room with me, manipulating this poor woman and deceiving her by pretending to be ghosts. The evidence was right before my eyes: you could see the unique and distinctive handwriting of each different one, and nobody could possibly fake so many different styles so fluidly and effortlessly. I asked for, and was given, the paper she was writing on, and couldn’t wait to show it to my Sunday school class, because it was such clear, tangible evidence of the supernatural.

When I looked at it the next morning, however, every single line was in the same, identical handwriting. I would have been prepared to swear in court that I had seen multiple different handwriting styles the night before, when I was surrounded by spooky people who were exclaiming delightedly over what they thought they were seeing. Despite my Biblical bias against spiritism, despite my wariness and my intention not to be deceived, I was so thoroughly swayed by the context that it changed my perception of the evidence.

Human psychology is like that, and any number of studies have been done that have documented the same perceptual weakness. It’s easy to create an experience of amazement that is sufficient to convince humans that they’ve encountered something supernatural. It does not even require that the supernatural phenomenon actually exist. The right emotional setting, the right expectations, the right desires and fears, and the perception creates itself.

A real God would know this, and would know that, in order to establish His existence, He would need to show up often enough and universally enough that we would all recognize Him. Not just knowing that He exists, but being able to discern the difference between the real God,and any erstwhile imposter, or the deceitfulness of our own hearts. The loving, merciful, and salvific response to this situation would be to show up and interact with us, tangibly, visibly and audibly, just to keep us familiar with Him, and not even counting how much He would normally want to interact with us, personally and face-to-face, simply out of His perfect and irresistable love for us all (including and perhaps especially the disobedient).

This is what does not happen, and that’s why I can say, without fear of refutation, that God (as defined by the Christian Gospel) does not show up in real life. He does not exist outside the minds and imaginations of men, and thus can only “show up” as a character in their stories, hopes, and feelings. Jesus preached a nice-sounding God, but what he said is not consistent with what we see in real life. And therefore, it is not true.

Preaching & Criticism

I happened across two interesting posts on preaching today. One of them was an interview by C.J. Maheney of Thabiti Anyabwile.C.J. asked “what single piece of counsel (or constructive criticism) has most improved your preaching?” Thabiti replied:

At Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Mark [Dever] held service reviews every Sunday night following the evening service. Prior to then, I don’t think I ever received much feedback other than the customary comments you receive at the church door after service. The first few times through those sessions were excruciating! On one level, just receiving feedback pointed out a lot of pride and an unhealthy lack of reflection on what I was doing as a preacher. Just taking and learning to take critique was a piece of counsel that has improved my preaching. I’m less ego-involved, I hope, and I’m benefiting from others.

On the other end of the spectrum was a post by Eric Costa on listening to too many online sermons. He states:

Here’s the real problem. When you listen on a regular basis to some of the best sermons in the history of the world, your expectations change. Suddenly you become a first class sermon critic (even if you’re not a seminary homiletics professor). You think more about the structure and delivery of sermons than letting the content have its way with your heart and mind. You begin to have all kinds of advice for your local minister (even though he didn’t ask for it). You won’t vote for that good minister to become your minister because he doesn’t preach a top-notch sermon (even though the Gospel is warm and clear in his preaching).

These seem at odds with one another at first, but a second glance reveals that they are complimentary points. Thabiti is addressing the pastor. He needs to be able to receive advice and constructive criticism on his preaching. If he maintains humility in his preaching and is striving for God’s glory, then he will wisely accept the counsel of others. (Although I believe that it was other elders that were offering advice to Thabiti - that can make a difference).

Eric, on the other hand was addressing primarily the layperson. He was not saying that they should not listen to good online sermons. His point was simply that the listener must guard his heart against discontentment. I think that is fabulous advise. There is no way that your average preacher will be able to compete with a heavyweight like Spurgeon.

Humility must mark both the pastor and the layperson. The pastor must not be too proud to accept criticism, nor should the lay person become arrogant in his criticism or (unjustifiably) discontent. Rather:

if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:1-11)