Archive for May, 2010
XFiles: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Deny GOOD PEOPLE

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

We’ve been listening to a fictional Christian, whom we’ve dubbed “Dr. Geistur,” as he tries all sorts of excuses for why God does not oppose evil in the kind of tangible and productive ways that would be consistent with the existence of a good and all-powerful deity. We’ve heard him excuse God on the grounds that God really has no choice, that somehow He lacks the power to prevent evil from happening one way or another. We’ve heard him criticize a Jewish apologist for making basically the same argument, on the grounds that all things are possible for God. We’ve heard him propose analogies like the Super Bowl, as illustrating how struggle can make victory sweeter (though he apparently fails to realize that it also illustrates the existence of alternatives that do not require resorting to sin and evil). And we’ve heard him try to sell the idea that evil isn’t really all that bad, and that it’s actually good for us, in the long run.

As if that hasn’t sufficiently made a general hash of his own religious beliefs, he next turns to this tidy morsel of misanthropy:

STRAW [the Atheist]: If God is infinitely powerful as you say, then why does he allow bad things to happen to good people?

GEISTUR: We’ve already pointed out that there are good outcomes for pain and suffering. But we also need to point out that the question makes an assumption that isn’t true.

STRAW: What’s that?

GEISTUR: There are no good people!

Charming, isn’t it?

Now in all fairness to Dr. Geistur, he’s not indulging in any personal antipathy towards his fellow mortals. He’s merely upholding an anti-human bias that’s inherent within his religion itself. As I mentioned before, one of the techniques that con men use to deceive their victims is the “Blame the Pigeon” strategy. People are more gullible when they’re afraid that they’re guilty of something, so to keep your pigeons from seeing through your scam, you just need to make them feel guilty.

Christianity takes this a step further by asserting that we are all guilty, by definition. There are no good people, according to the Gospel—just like there’s no naturally luxuriant and vibrant hair according to the marketing department of your favorite shampoo and conditioner. Even before you start, you’re inherently inferior and inadequate, and you need our product to make you socially acceptable. Even if we don’t have any actual product to deliver.

Dr. Geistur then gets the strawman atheist character to confess to having told lies and having stolen things. Mr. Straw protests that he’s not all bad, but Geistur retorts that he’s not all good either, and then broadens that to include all people, including babies who, in his view, are sinfully guilty of being selfish. Mr. Straw is judging himself to be more or less good relative to other people, but (Geistur argues) he’s failing to consider where he stands on an absolute standard of goodness.

The point of this whole little diversion is just to get to a point where Geistur can go back to Rabbi Kushner’s book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and claim that Kushner is making incorrect assumptions about both God and man. As far as Geistur is concerned, evil in the world is not a problem for an omnipotent God because the victims all deserve to suffer. The only real question, according to Geistur, is “Why do good things happen to bad people?” In other words, he’s invoking the Rapist’s Defense (“She was asking for it!”) as yet another excuse for God’s failure to oppose evil in any tangible, real-world way.

Like I said: charming.

Let’s take a moment here to indulge in some of the thinking that’s sadly failing to happen in this little dialog between the Christian and the straw man. Is it really true that there are no good people? And is there an absolute standard of goodness for us to measure people against?

Obviously, the answer to the first question is no, it’s not true at all. But to explain why, we need to understand the answer to the second question, which is also “no.”

When Dr. Geistur accuses Mr. Straw of judging people by comparing them with other people, he’s making an astute observation. We do judge how good people are by comparing them with others. What Dr. Geistur fails to realize is that this is the correct way to judge goodness in a person’s life, because “goodness” is a social relationship whose existence is defined by the person’s interactions with others. If you don’t consider the person’s behavior in light of the other people they are interacting with, then you’re taking things out of context, and are not making a fair judgment.

When a person is part of a group, there’s a certain tension between the best interests of the individual and the best interests of the group. “Goodness,” in a social context, consists of finding a workable balance between behaviors that benefit the individual and behaviors that benefit the group. Ideally, we want to maximize the behaviors that are beneficial to both, and minimize the behaviors that are detrimental to one or the other. It’s “good” to be a positive example and a reliable contributor to the well-being of the group, but it’s “bad” to be too much of a taker/exploiter, or too much of a doormat. “Goodness” is that which maximizes the benefit to all involved.

Now, that’s a fairly abstract description because different groups actually have different characters, objectives, and priorities. “Good” as defined by a fellowship of stay-home, full-time, home-schooling evangelical moms, and “good” as defined by an association of activists working to promote First Amendment liberties, might not be entirely the same list of behaviors. Is it “good” to depend on a wealthier relative to meet your own financial needs? Again, in a third world culture, it might very well be good (and even inescapable), whereas in an affluent society like America it might be seen as a sign of moral weakness, or worse.

How about mandatory celibacy? Good or bad? Even within Christianity, you’ll get a different answer depending on which group is considering the question (and who’s being proposed as being subject to the restriction). Is gay marriage better or worse than promiscuous gay sex? Hmm, might be hard to get a consistent answer to that one too, and might lead the Christian to reconsider his or her answer to the question about mandatory celibacy.

I think you see my point. There is no absolute standard of goodness, because goodness exists relative to a particular person, in a particular set of circumstances, in the context of a particular group with a particular set of standards, expectations, constraints, and so on. If you were to write a book containing an enumerated listing of which actions were “good” for a particular person in a particular social/cultural/economic context, the table of contents alone would probably consume all of the world’s paper and ink!

But by and large, no such reference guide is even necessary. We know that there are good people, and bad people, and we judge them according to our own contexts, as we should and must. But more to the point—and to get back to the topic Geistur is failing to address—none of that has anything at all to do with deserving to be born with crippling birth defects, or deserving lifelong poverty and starvation, or deserving premature death due to natural or man-made catastrophe.

Rabbi Kushner originally asked (and tried to answer) a perfectly good question about why a supposedly good God fails to intervene in cases where the victims suffer evils that they have not provoked by any correspondingly evil deeds. Geistur’s diversion into abstract hamartiology is just that: a diversion, a hand-waving attempt to distract us from the fact that he has no good answers. Go ahead: argue about whether or not it’s inhumanly barbaric to seriously claim that babies deserve to be born with horrendous, life-shattering birth defects. At least if you’re debating hamartiology, you’re not asking why God allowed an innocent child to suffer, and the real question of evil has been successfully dodged.

I wish I could say that this was just a momentary lapse on Geistur’s part, but skimming ahead… no, sorry, there’s lots more where that came from. Stay tuned (if you can stand it).

Doctrine & Good Works

“Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. It may be beautiful to some minds, but it is childless and barren. There is no getting over the facts. The good that is done in the earth may be comparatively small. Evil may abound, and ignorant impatience may murmur and cry out that Christianity has failed. But, depend on it, if we want to “do good” and shake the world, we must fight with the old apostolic weapons, and stick to “dogma.” No dogma, no fruits! No positive evangelical doctrine, no evangelization!” – J.C. Ryle

Read the rest of it here at Kevin DeYoung’s blog.

The Bad Grammar of Christianese – Faith

Faith is one of those words that has become redefined in the lives of Christians. Without a daily reading of and thinking about scripture, these things become easily distorted. Consider these words from Kenneth Copeland:

God framed the worlds by faith. Everything God made, He made by faith. Everything He does, He does by faith.
For you and me, it’s no different. What works for God will work for us.
The key to shaping our everyday world is understanding faith—and living by it. We must know what it is, how to get it and how to use it.

God framed the world by faith? This is a good example of the way faith has come to be understood in many circles of Christiandom. Faith is seen as possessing independent existence. It is like some kind of ether that we can tap into. It is a source of power out there somewhere. But this is not the biblical understanding of faith.

Faith comes from the Greek term pistis. It means a belief and trust in someone or something. Consider:

Acts 20:21 “testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 24:24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus.

In Acts 26 Jesus tells Paul that he is sending him to the Gentiles so that “they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

Acts 27:25 So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.

Rom 3:21-22 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Gal 2:16 yet we know that a person is not justified[1] by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

The biblical view of faith requires an object. In order to have faith, there must be something or someone in which you can trust. It is the characteristic of the object that one is trusting. It is something not of you that you are trusting. If I have faith in my chair I am trusting that my chair has the strength to hold me when I sit on it. When I have faith in Christ, I am trusting in the work that he has done to save me. Looking at Copeland’s use of faith it becomes immediately obvious what the problem is. Who was God trusting to create the universe? When it says that God created the universe through faith, then in whom was he trusting to create the universe?

Moreover, as Rhology observed:

The principle of faith and positive confession is an eternal principle, obviously, since the WoF god made use of it to make the creation happen.  So, did he create the principle of faith or has it always existed?
If he created it, how did he do so without speaking in faith?
If the latter, how is Colossians 1:15-16 correct?

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

It says that the God of the Bible created all things.  If the WoF god is the God of the Bible, how is the principle of faith, which is clearly extraneous from the WoF god and of which he makes use to create and to do anything, not part of the WoF god’s creation?

Ek Kaleo

The term ecclesia is the most used term in the NT for the church. It comes from the Greek word ek which means out and the word kaleo which means to call. Thus ek kaleo or ecclesia means the called out ones. The church is composed of those who receive a calling. It cannot be a collection of any kind of people. Of all the people in the world, the church is composed of those who have been called out. A gathering of mere religious people will not do. You must receive a calling. It is assumed that anybody can come to church. If it is something that you want to do, great! If not, no big deal. Some people want to come to church because they think its important that their kids have good morals. But try as they might, they never actually come to church. Heb 5:4 says” And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” Being part of the church is not something that we can presume for ourselves any more than Aaron could presume to be a priest. God had to call him. Given that calling is so essential to the church, let’s examine that a bit more.

Who Gives the Call?

1 Cor 1:9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
God is the one who issues this call. This should be obvious to all, but it still bears repeating. God is the one who has summoned us to be part of this fellowship. This is a high calling indeed! We would be ecstatic to receive a calling from anyone in high office just for the honer of meeting with them. But this is the Creator of the universe that we are talking about. This is the Ancient of Days. This is the God who beckons the morning and bids the sun farewell at night. This is your Redeemer!
Some people criticize Christians for thinking that they are in some kind of special class (although I think there is precious little basis upon which to level that accusation), but that is not what I am advocating. I am not suggesting that we are part of some elite class because of how special we are. But I do want to reclaim some sense of grandeur for what we have been made partakers of. It is not our achievements or pedigree that got us in, but make no mistake, the fact that God issues the call means that it is a high privilege for us to be counted in that number. Eph 4:1 gives recognition to this truth when Paul says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,”

How Are We Called?

First, we are called by the grace of God. Gal 1:6 says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”
This dovetails well into just said, namely that our membership in the church is not our doing. God issues the call to include us, and it effected through grace. So it is that God works in our hearts to soften them. He works in our hearts to prepare us. We are enemies of God who would never come to him on our own. But thankfully he does not leave us alone. Rather he extends his grace to us to overcome our stony hearts.
Second, Paul makes this point in 2 Thess 2:14: “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The call is a gracious call, but it is also a specific call. God does not simply call out, “Craig!” and leave it at that. The gospel proclaims the way of salvation. We must repent of our sins and believe in Jesus Christ, his perfect life, his substitutionary death, burial, resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. If we forsake our sins and cease our striving and rest in Christ alone to save us from the wrath of God, then we are part of the church.

When Are We Called?

We are called by God through his grace in his gospel. But when does all this take place? Rom 8:30 says, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” This is part of what theologians call the golden chain of salvation. Each link is necessary and leads to the next link. It is a perfect unbroken chain of events that secures our salvation. In this instance, God predestined us to salvation and then calls us to be part of his people. All those he calls are then justified and the justified are glorified. Thus this calling precedes our justification.

Why Are We Called?

So God predestines us, and then calls us, but upon what basis was this predestination? Did God look down through time to see how each person would respond and then on that basis predestine them? Why were you called? Both 2 Tim 1:9 and Rom 8:28 speak about his. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
2 Tim 1:9 “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,”
God’s calling is not reactionary. He does not wring his hands wondering who will be a part of his church and then predestine on that basis. The church is not an ad hoc assembly which comes together largely by chance. No. It is purposeful. God has a plan, he has a purpose, and we were called according to that purpose. We are not made accidental members of some rag tag group. We are made members of a very purposeful group. This provides the basis for asking the question “Why?” If there was no purpose, then we could not ask why.
So why were you called? 1 Pet 2:9 answers saying, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Our job is to proclaim the excellencies of God. Our job is to glorify God. Our job is to make much of him. And we do not make much of God by keeping him to ourselves. Rather we want the whole world to be praising God and so we must proclaim!

To What Are We Called?

Now here is the big question, “To what were we called?” There are actually a lot of answers to that question. In general, we are all called to the following:
Rom 1:6 “including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,” We are summoned to be servants. He calls us to be citizens of his kingdom.
But if we identify with Jesus, that means that persecution will come our way. Thus suffering is also part of our call. 1 Peter 2:21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
1 Pet 3:9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
While being called to belong to Christ means that we are called to suffer, it also means that we have been called to a hope. Remember, one of the ways that God called us was through his gospel. The gospel is a declaration of salvation from wrath available to those who accept it. Thus this hope of salvation is part and parcel of our calling.
Eph 1:18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
This glorious inheritance is none other than eternal life as we learn from 1 Tim 6:12 “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
Although we are not saved by our works, that does not mean that we can keep on sinning.
1 Thess 4:7 “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” God desires us to be set apart. We have been focusing on the calling, the kaleo of the church, but let us not forget the ek, the out of. We have been ek kaleo, called out. No longer are we to walk in the old manner of life. Thus Paul can write, 1 Cor 1:2 “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” The term saints is hagio, which means holy. We have been called to be holy.
Finally, we have been called to be part of a group. This reinforces what we went over in the use of sunagoge. 1 Cor 1:9 “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Col 3:15 “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.”
In none of these things can you say, no thanks, not for me. This is part of your calling. And if you have not been called, then you are not part of the ekklesia, you are not part of the church. You cannot say, I’m part of the church, but I don’t belong to Jesus. Nor can you say, “She is part of the church, but she does not have eternal life.” You cannot say, I am part of the church I just don’t go to church.” Dear friends that is not an option. The very calling that makes you part of the church calls you to be part of a fellowship, part of a body.

From beginning to end it is all God. God called us, through his grace by his gospel, in his timing according to his purpose, for his glory, to proclaim his excellencies, to suffer for him, to hope in him, to be conformed to  him, and to be brought into his body. If our church is to be anything, it must be a Christ centered church.

Starring Sarah Palin as Alice…

While I’m ranting about political topics, let me blow off a little steam about the Tea Partiers. I’m not sure how Louis Carroll would feel about seeing a significant element in American politics modeled after Messrs Hatter and Hare, but I rather doubt it would be pride.

The Tea Partiers are the intellectual bastard children of Karl Rove and Rupert Murdock (and similar manipulators of public opinion). Bred from the innuendo and suspicion fostered by conservative political strategy, they have grown up unable to trust any authority, even the ones that created them.

The plan was that by using slander and demagoguery, conservatives could control what people believed and how they would vote. It even worked, for a while. But much to their current surprise and dismay, it’s turning out that the victories they’ve bought with their dishonest tactics are victories they’ve charged to a very expensive credit card. And it’s time to pay the bills.

The trouble with rabble-rousing is that you end up with a lot of roused rabble. And in this case it’s a lot of roused rabble with an inherent mistrust of authority. Is it a coincidence that they’re developing a taste for candidates like Sarah Palin and George Bush, whose popularity is based on their lack of “elite” leadership skills? If you don’t trust your leaders, why not put the incompetents in that position, so they’ll be less of a threat, eh?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. There’s no cure short of waiting for the Tea Partiers to realize that denying reality is mostly self-destructive. The question is, can the RNC survive the monster they worked so hard to create?

A Texas “education”?

I haven’t been saying much about current events lately, but there’s a question I just have to ask. Experts have been commenting about how the new curriculum standards out of Texas are likely to influence other states as well, due to the very large number of textbooks purchased by Texas schools. The question I have to ask is what the heck are they doing with all those books?

XFiles: The two faces of Dr. Geistur

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

Last week, in the debate over evil, Dr. Geistur (the Christian) told Mr. Straw (the atheist) that evil wasn’t really all that bad, and that the end justifies the means. This week continues along the same lines, with some gratuitous mockery of atheists and some blissfully oblivious hypocrisy thrown in for color.

MR. STRAW: So you’re saying that evil has a purpose that has implications in eternity.

DR. GEISTUR: Yes.

From man’s point of view, evil is evil, but from God’s point of view, evil is ultimately not just good, but better than having no evil at all.

This is why the first curveball Geistur threw was an insistence on having this debate under the assumption that God must exist. That’s a very important assumption, because without it, if we remember that God does not show up in real life, and that the real question is whether or not men are feeding us a coherent and reasonable theology, the fact that you end up arguing “evil is good” might seem like a pretty serious self-contradiction.

At this point, there’s a bit of a breakdown in the script. Geisler and Turek, the authors, break the fourth wall in order to take a gratuitous swipe at atheists in general.

STRAW: Suppose there’s no eternity. Suppose we live, we die, and that’s it.

GEISTUR: It’s possible, but I don’t have enough faith to believe it.

STRAW: Why not?

GEISTUR: Haven’t you read this book?

STRAW: No, I jumped right to this appendix.

GEISTUR: That’s just like you, isn’t it? You don’t want to play the game; you just want to see the final score.

Take that you atheists! You can practically see Geisler and Turek sitting in front of their keyboards, worrying about what happens if anyone just skims their book. Suppose they go straight to the appendix, and judge the whole book by the quality of their arguments about theodicy? We don’t want them to conclude that the rest of the book is this bad, do we? Hey, I know, let’s make them think that’s what the evil lazy atheists all do—then they’ll have to read the whole book, just to “play the game.” Problem solved!

Word.

Of course, if you do read the whole book, like we have, you might notice that Geisler and Turek’s whole argument for eternal life and eternal judgment boils down to just taking man’s word for it that these unseen and self-contradictory ideas are really true. Because they “don’t have enough faith” to question what men tell them, even when the teachings are perverse and absurd. And they’re making fun of the atheists?

But it’s not just atheists who earn Geistur’s smarmy contempt. America in general—yes, this great Christian nation we always hear so much about—is equally to be dispised:

STRAW: I suppose I suffer from the American disease of instant gratification.

GEISTUR: That’s probably why you’re having trouble realizing the value of suffering and “no pain, no gain!”

STRAW: You’re right, reading this book is too painful. It’s too long.

I’ll grant you that it is indeed painful to watch a pair of otherwise educated scholars undertake a long, slow process of intellectual self-castration, especially when using instruments as blunt as those favored by Geisler and Turek. But somehow I don’t think that’s what Geistur is trying to say. Having gotten hold of a pleasurable fantasy, Geisler and Turek are indulging in a bit of self-gratification, imagining atheists everywhere moaning and gasping in the pain from the hard-hitting points they raise. Let’s give them a few minutes of privacy, shall we?

Ok, all done guys? Good, let’s get back to the actual discussion then, shall we?

STRAW: …let’s get back to the question of evil. If there is an eternity, then some evils in this world may have an eternal purpose. But there are certainly some evil acts in this world that have absolutely no purpose.

GEISTUR: How do you know?

STRAW: It’s obvious! What good purpose could there be in, say, the terrorist attacks on 9/11?

GEISTUR: While I wish it had never happened, there were some good things that came out of those terrible events. For example, we came together as a country; we helped those in need; and we resolved to fight the evil of terrorism. We were also shocked into pondering the ultimate questions about life, and some people came to Christ as a result of it. As C. S. Lewis said, pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” 9/11 certainly woke us up!

Wow, Geistur came really close to admitting that 9/11 did more harm that good. And he really has to grope a bit to find some way to make evil sound like good. The terrorist attacks were good because they brought us together as a country? Really? I can’t help but wonder if Geisler and Turek would make the same argument today. Is this really the Great Revival they were hoping for? Are they glad that 9/11 led to a Republican rush to war in Iraq that proved disastrous and unjustified, resulting in a Democratic backlash that put Obama in the White House?

It’s no wonder why Geistur wishes 9/11 had never happened, despite his vague and empty reassurances that some good must surely come out of it. And, just to increase his discomfort, Straw presses the issue by pointing out that even if a few good things happened, the bad outweighs them. Geistur falls back on that favorite Christian stand-by: agnosticism.

STRAW: Yes, you can find a silver lining in just about anything, but there’s no way your “silver lining” outweighs the pain and suffering.

GEISTUR: How do you know? Unless you are all-knowing and have an eternal perspective, how do you know the events of 9/11 will not work together for good in the end? Perhaps there are many good things that will come out of that tragedy in the individual lives we will never hear about. In fact, good results may even come generations from now unbeknownst to those who will experience them.

STRAW: Maybe, but I don’t have enough faith to assume that.

Oops, I lied. That last line is not what Straw originally said. It’s only what he would have said if he were a real atheist instead of Geisler and Turek’s sock puppet straw man. In the book, Mr. Straw just whimpers something weak about Geistur copping out. That gives Geistur a chance to repeat his argument about how limited human knowledge is and how little we know about the future. And therefore evil is good, because we can’t ultimately know beyond all possible doubt that it is indeed evil.

Straw does redeem himself a bit with this next line, though.

STRAW: If God would tell me his reasons, then maybe I could believe you.

GEISTUR: Job already tried that tactic. After he questioned God about why he suffered, God baffled Job with questions about the wonders of creation (Job 38-41). It’s as if God were saying to him, “Job, you can’t even understand how I run the physical world that you can see, so how are you going to understand the vastly more complex moral world that you cannot see—a world where the results of billions of free choices made by human beings every day interact with one another?” Indeed it would be impossible for us to comprehend such complexity.

And just to prove the deep intellectual profundity of this point, Geistur backs it up with an allusion to the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart. Cause what I’m sayin’, you just can’t argue with a fictional character that was portrayed by Jimmy Steward, know what I mean?

Ok, sarcasm aside, this is actually very close to bringing up an important and truly profound point. The issue is not whether an omnipotent and omniscient deity might know something humans don’t know. The issue is whether Straw, the man, could and should believe Geistur, the man. We’re not talking about observing God behaving in mysterious ways, we’re talking about the claims that men like Dr. Geistur make in God’s absence, and whether these claims have self-consistency of real-world truth.

If God were to show up in real life and tell me that He has reasons, then I would believe. That’s the difference between Job and Geistur. Job knew that God had reasons, because God showed up in person to tell him He had reasons, whether or not those reasons made any sense to Job (or to anyone, for that matter). Geistur has nothing like that. He does not know that God has any good reasons for allowing 9/11, he’s just clinging to faith in the doctrine that God must have had a reason.

Meanwhile, Straw is weighing the evidence to see whether or not Geistur is saying things that make enough sense to be believable. And Geistur can’t offer Straw the evidence that Job had, because Job had a God Who cared enough to show up in real life and to, well, to tell him to STFU. We don’t have that. God doesn’t show up even as a bully to suppress honest inquiry with thinly veiled threats. So it’s up to Jimmy Stewart to try and make up for God’s absence.

Geistur is, ultimately, making an appeal to agnosticism (or an appeal to ignorance, if you prefer). That’s a pretty poor argument, though, so he tries to deny that he’s doing it.

STRAW: But it seems like that’s an argument from ignorance.

GEISTUR: No. It’s not like we have no information about why bad things happen. We know that we live in a fallen world, and we know that good things can come from bad. So we know it’s possible that God can have a good reason for bad things even if we don’t know what those reasons are. And we know that he can bring good from bad. So it’s not an argument from ignorance, but a reasonable conclusion from what we do know. And while we don’t know the reason for every specific bad thing that happens, we know why we don’t know: we don’t know because of our human limitations.

And that’s Geistur’s final summation for his argument from agnosticism; after this, he changes subjects, so that’s probably Geisler and Turek’s final conclusion as well (at least for this particular rationalization). Unfortunately, none of the things Geistur says “we know” are things we actually know.

We don’t “know” that the world has “fallen” from an initial state of perfection. That’s merely a story that Geistur accepts by faith. Nor do good things come from bad things, strictly speaking. Life is a struggle, and when bad things happen, people work to make them better. The good things are the result of the work, not of the bad things. It’s true that you can’t have emancipation without having slavery first, but the goodness of the emancipation is not caused by the institution of slavery. The evil (slavery) creates a lack of goodness (liberty), but restoring that deficiency doesn’t mean that good came out of the bad. Good comes out of people working to improve the situation. And besides, though emancipation is good, it’s far better never to have lost your liberty in the first place.

Likewise, we don’t “know” that it’s possible for God to have a good reason for the bad things. In fact, there’s no way Geistur could possibly know that an omnipotent and omniscient God could not have found some way to achieve the good without requiring the bad. Even if we grant that it might be good to “wake up” America by blessing the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we still have to consider whether or not it would be better to issue the wake-up call by some means that did not involve horrific death for thousands of men, women and children. And by his own arguments, Geistur cannot know that a truly wise God could not think of a better way.

And finally, we don’t know that God can bring good from bad, because we never see Him do it. We see men superstitiously giving God credit for good things (and paradoxically failing to assign Him responsibility for the bad), but God Himself does not show up in real life to do anything at all, good or bad. Like I said before, the good that happens, happens because people make it happen. Once again, it’s Geistur’s faith, not his knowledge, that causes him to make the assumptions he cites as evidence that he’s not arguing from ignorance.

There’s one last exchange I want to address this week: the Jewish answer.

STRAW: What do you think of Rabbi Kushner’s answer to the question? You know, he wrote the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

GEISTUR: I think his answer is wrong.

STRAW: Wrong? Why?

GEISTUR: Because his answer is that God isn’t powerful enough to defeat evil on earth. So we need to forgive God for allowing evil.

STRAW: What’s wrong with that?

GEISTUR: Because there’s strong evidence that God is infinitely powerful. Fifty-six times in the Bible God is referred to as “almighty,” and in several other ways he is described as all-powerful. We also know from scientific evidence that he created this universe out of nothing (take a look at chapter 3 of this book). So Rabbi Kushner’s finite god doesn’t square with the facts.

Isn’t it funny how bad your own arguments can sound when you hear someone else make them? Geistur’s main point in this appendix has been that God allows evil because He really doesn’t have any choice: either He allows evil (even though it’s evil), or He destroys some vital principle of free will that makes us real people (thus committing an even greater evil). We fallible mortals might wish evil weren’t here to make us suffer, but sadly even “almighty” God can’t come up with a better alternative.

Hearing a Jew make the same sort of argument puts it in a whole different perspective. Of course, Rabbi Kushner does commit one faux pas that Geistur would never allow: the good Rabbi is frank and open about the fact that he blames evil on certain divine limitations, without tangling up his thought processes by as many convoluted rationalizations and contradictory dogmas. But you can’t swallow such direct and unadulterated honesty without a serious risk of evangelical headsplosions, so Geistur looks suspiciously at the plain, unvarnished version of his own argument, and flatly rejects it.

And that brings us to as good a break as any. Tune in again next week, when we’ll hear Dr. Geistur say:

GEISTUR: There are no good people!

Should be fun.

How Culture Diverts Our Thoughts Away From What Really Matters

There is one truth that nobody can debate, and that is that we physically die at some point within the near future, relative to the life spans of everything else in the universe. However, it seems that many forget this fact of life and dedicate great amounts of time and energy towards icons, personalities, and ideas that are unconnected to their own day-to-day lives and do not matter in the grand scheme of things. The intense (and sometimes violent) passion that sports fans experience as well as the immersion of oneself into the “sleazy” world of celebrities are some ways in which cultures and societies divert our thoughts away from things in life that matter the most. Things which directly affect us and make lasting impressions upon our beings. By creating illusory focus points within reality for the masses to lock their awareness into, culture and those who have enough power to dictate or influence it becomes a hindrance to one’s own personal self-growth and self-actualization.

Think about the massive quantities of time that people spend on these things which have no direct connection to their lives…all that time which could have been dedicated towards something a bit more constructive or positive in experiential existence. Our culture is an artificially-created box in which a seemingly-endless number of things exist which attempt to entice an individual towards giving away massive amounts of his or her conscious lives towards the focusing in on trivialities or things which have no direct influence on his or her life and self-actualization. Terrence McKenna had mused on the same thought-form, which is that humanity seems to be imprisoned by its cultural programming. This programming is so intense and strong, that it seems to be the most imprisoning factor within our lives. Culture does indeed appear to be a mass hallucination.

There are numerous boundaries that exist within culture have been erected by groups or individuals within society that (either knowingly or unknowingly) helped hinder any progress being made in peoples’ self-growth, self-actualization, and/or Self-realization. Things such as sports rivalries, clothes styles and various types of class systems are just a few of the boundaries that had hardly had any useful place in reality because they did not exist prior to us creating them. Only by complete boundary dissolution can we revert to a more pure form of experiential existence, where the focus of one’s self was on one’s personal growth and of others’. Boundary dissolution refers to deconstruction and dissolvement of boundaries that have been created by humans and which have existed as long as the ego has influenced humanity. The purpose of boundary dissolution is to do away with these falsehoods that separate humanity rather than uniting it. Societal boundaries and other boundaries based on the self-ish nature of the ego can be said to be the cause of many of society’s ills and problems.

With a good system come good results, and the results and outcomes of boundary dissolution indeed are numerous. You can try for yourself to see this as being a reality. Instead of giving into cultures’ aspects that are unhelpful in shifting your consciousness to a higher level, have the idea of oneness within your mind and immerse yourself in things that unite, rather than divide. By doing away with the constructs that separate you from others or create any bit of hostility, hatred, or animosity between you and someone else and by letting go of the fear that hinders you from taking these actions, you will be freed from the overbearing grip of the ego. When you dissolve the boundaries that divide and separate you from others, you will have the ability to transform your world into one of serenity, tranquility, and peace. Oneness will not be just a philosophical or utopian concept but a reality that will be experienced by the totality of the human race. We must always have hope that this will become a reality because the future is yet to be determined. Possibilities are endless.

Six Myths About Christianity – Part 11

Continuing my review of the November Watchtower article “Exposed: Six Myths About Christianity,” I’d like to remind my readers that the full text of the Watchtower article is in blue with my comments in black.

What does the Bible say? “Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. ‘Look! I can see heaven thrown open,’ he said, ‘and the son of man sitting at the right hand of God.’” -Acts 7:55, 56. The New Jerusalem Bible

What did this vision reveal? Filled with God’s active force, Stephen saw Jesus “standing at God’s right hand.” Clearly then Jesus did not become God again after his resurrection to heaven but, rather, a distinct spiritual being. There is no mention of a third person next to God in this account.

It is strange that the Watchtower does not seem aware of even a basic understanding of the Trinity. Trinitarians hold that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are all distinct persons and are all God. It is therefore appropriate for any one of them to be called God. As with a team of professionals, whether it be doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc, there is usually a lead for each project or case. The lead engineer is often simply called the engineer. This is not a denial of other engineers on the project, it is just the usual designation for the lead engineer. Something similar occurs here. The Father is typically referred to as “God.” This is not a denial of the deity of Jesus. Similarly, John 18:24 says, “Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.” Shall we conclude then that Annas was not a high priest? Not at all for Acts 4:6 says he was high priest. So also, verses that affirm that the Father is God is not a denial that the Son is also God.
They are simply trying to create a problem where none exists. The Watchtower then go on to say “clearly. . . Jesus was a distinct spiritual being.” But where do they derive that? Why can’t he be a distinct person as Trinitarians affirm? I get the impression that they are confusing the doctrine of the Trinity with modalism. Modalism teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God and all the same person. In this view God is like an actor who performs different roles throughout the play. Modalism does indeed have problems since this passage would have Jesus sitting at his own right hand. But this is not the doctrine of the Trinity.
Why does the Watchtower treat the Trinity as if it were modalism? Do they not know the difference? Do they know the difference but deliberately misrepresent it? Assuming that they are not deliberately lying, why would they publish a magazine on a subject that they don’t understand?
They also state, “Clearly then Jesus did not become God again after his resurrection.” But Trinitarians don’t think he ever stopped being God. It is not as though the Second Person of the Trinity was, and stopped existing when Jesus was born, and then came into existence after the resurrection. No Trinitarian has ever taught differently.They are only attacking a straw man.
Once more they say, “There is no mention of a third person next to God in this account” as if that were relevant. Do passages that only have David in them prove that Saul did not exist? Does the fact that some passages mention only Peter prove that James and John did not exist? This is an odd requirement for them to suggest.
Despite attempts to find passages of Scipture to support the Trinity dogma, Dominican priest Marie-Emile Boismard wrote in his book A l’aube du chnlrtianisme-la nuissance des dagmes (At the Dawn of Chlistian
ity-The Birth of Dogmas): “The statement that there are three persons in the one God. . . cannot be read anywhere in the New Testament.”
As if this were a problem. It is like saying, “
Despite attempts to find passages of Scripture to support the nature of God dogma, some Domincan Priest said ‘The statement that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all present. . . cannot be read anywhere in the New Testament.’” As long as there are verses which claim each of these attributes for God, it does not matter if all these attributes cannot be found in just a single verse.
This is a diversionary tactic. There are Bible verses that teach that there is one God. There are Bible verses that teach that the Father is God, others that teach that the Son is God, and others that teach that the Holy Spirit is God. Finally, there are verses that teach that the Father and Son are distinct, the Son and the Spirit are distinct, and that the Spirit and the Father are distinct. If that is what scripture teaches then scripture teaches the doctrine of the Trinity.

XFiles: the pieces left over

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, Appendix 1.)

At the beginning of their book, Geisler and Turek compared life to a jigsaw puzzle.

Just as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are difficult to put together without the picture on the box top, the many diverse pieces of life make no sense without some kind of unifying big picture. The question is, does anyone have the box top to this puzzle we call life?

In their last chapter, they claimed to have found the box top, the big picture that makes life make sense. By a curious coincidence, it happened to be the same as the religion they’re trying to sell us. And yet, when we compare their box top to the pieces on the table in front of us, the two clearly fail to line up.

The box top shows a wise and powerful shepherd who truly cares for his sheep and is able both to lead them to verdant pastures and to drive away any predators before they even approach the sheep. What do we see in the puzzle pieces? Mutton. Scrapie. Rocky, overgrazed pastures. Whole packs of wolves. But no shepherd. None of the pieces we can actually see really match the image of the loving, powerful, and all-wise guardian and caregiver, so lovingly depicted on the box top Geisler and Turek have painted for us.

So hidden away in an appendix (where believers are less likely to read it), in a comic-strip dialog format (which allows the Christian character to make broad claims without having to document them), Geisler and Turek are attempting to be the ones to find the answer believers have been looking for since before Jesus was even born. And, in keeping with long-standing traditions, they’re failing.

Last week, we saw how Geisler and Turek tried to make Mr. Straw (the atheist strawman in this dialog) sound unreasonable and whiny for asking why God is not currently opposing evil the way any good person would reasonably be expected to do. The Christian character, Dr. Geistur (as we’re calling him), even went so far as to imply that we, the victims, are guilty and responsible for causing all the evil that exists in the world—including things we have no control over.

Now it’s Dr. Geistur’s turn to get a little unreasonable, as he twists and turns, trying to think of some justification for God’s decision to serve as an accessory/co-conspirator to evil, continuing to provide it with the means and the opportunity to manifest itself in the world.

GEISTUR: If God wanted to end evil now, he could. But have you thought that maybe God has other goals that he would like to accomplish while evil exists?

STRAW: Like what?

GEISTUR: For starters, he would like to have more people choose heaven before he closes the curtain on this world. Paul seems to indicate that Jesus will come back after “the full number” of people become believers (Rom. 11:25).

Dr. Geistur seems to be a bit unsure as to whether evil is really all that bad. Remember, we’re not just talking about suffering here, we’re talking about sin. Geistur’s argument is that God could oppose evil, but then He wouldn’t be able to do as much. God with evil has more power to do good than God without evil. It’s like a performance-enhancing drug: it gives God super powers that He wouldn’t have otherwise. Sure, it may be wrong, but let’s face it, God is hooked on evil. Without it, He’s useless.

Is this really the argument Christians want to make? If God is truly the creator of everything, did He deliberately create a situation in which He would necessarily be dependent on evil in order to be able to do good? Dr. Geistur seems to have failed to think this through. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly, though: the problem of evil is really a tough one because it’s fundamentally inconsistent with Christian beliefs. And that’s giving Dr. Geistur some serious cognitive dissonance.

Notice, for example, how he consistently invokes a kind of tunnel vision by assuming that the only thing God can do to oppose evil is to destroy the entire planet. Why doesn’t God oppose evil? Because He doesn’t want to destroy this world until the “full number” of predestined believers has been saved. It’s either/or: either God can do nothing to oppose evil (thus giving people time to repent), or He can end evil by destroying the entire world, along with all earthly opportunities for salvation. No other options, even for God.

Utter nonsense, of course: there are any number of lesser ways God could oppose evil, even while allowing it to continue to exist in some form. Geistur himself even proposes some of them—as chores we need to undertake. He can see that alternatives exist, but somehow he can’t make the connection between them and God. It’s the psychology of denial: if he could see them, he would be unable to explain why God doesn’t do them. Therefore, he cannot see them, except as things we ought to be doing.

We see another example of this psychological blindness when Mr. Straw (as the atheist cartoon) raises the possibility of God merely helping us when we suffer.

STRAW: That’s nice, but if I were suffering, I’d rather have God help me than you.

GEISTUR: If God prevented pain every time we got into trouble, then we would become the most reckless, self-centered creatures in the universe. And we would never learn from suffering.

STRAW: Learn from suffering! What are you talking about?

GEISTUR: Ah, you’ve just hit on another reason why God doesn’t end evil right now. Can you name me one enduring lesson that you ever learned from pleasure?

Notice how Geistur twisted the original suggestion from the idea that God could help comfort us after we experience pain into some kind of demand that God prevent us from ever experiencing negative consequences from our evil deeds. The reasonable expectation, which Geistur can’t explain or refute, is magically transformed into an unreasonable demand that he can dismiss.

Or can he? Think about it: the lessons we learn from pain are lessons about how to avoid the evil consequences of our evil deeds. But what if evil never existed in the first place? Without evil, there are neither evil deeds to do nor evil consequences to suffer, and thus no value in learning lessons about avoiding evil. No evil = nothing to avoid, and no motive to even want to do anything wrong in the first place!

Or let’s consider the proposition that, without pain (and evil), we would necessarily become the most reckless and self-centered creatures in the universe. Really? Even though we were made in the image of God? Did God become the most reckless and self-centered creature in eternity before the creation of pain and evil? I’ll give you a minute to think about that.

Or how about the idea that we could not learn enduring lessons without evil? Once again, Dr. Geistur twists this into a demand for enduring lessons we learn from pleasure (i.e. not just in the absence of evil). The strawman atheist, of course, can’t think of any, though it’s not hard to do (has Geistur never learned the satisfaction of a job well done, or the rewards of proper hygiene and exercise and nutrition, or the joy of helping others?). There’s lots of things that both make you feel good and teach you valuable lessons, but the psychology of denial prevents Geistur from seeing any of them just now.

Geistur’s dilemma becomes even worse when you try and put the word “enduring” into a Christian context. According to the Gospel, believers are going to spend eternity in heaven, which means that our earthly experiences are going to be a vanishingly small percentage of what our “enduring” experience will be. In order to be a properly enduring lesson, in a Christian context, it needs to be a lesson that will be applicable to the conditions that will allegedly exist eternally in heaven.

So, for example, Geistur argues that “You can’t develop courage unless there is danger.” Is this an enduring lesson, though? In an atheistic, secular sense of “enduring,” sure. But courage is only a virtue when there is a danger to face and an evil to oppose. Is that what conditions are going to be like in heaven for all eternity? What kind of relationship will there be between Jesus Christ and his Bride (i.e. the Church), if being raped and tortured is a valuable and enduring lesson in the Christian sense? What is there about watching your children slowly starve that makes you better prepared for what God has in store for believers in heaven?

Amazingly, Mr. Straw almost points out this problem. Dr. Geistur’s response has to be seen to be believed.

STRAW: But I wouldn’t need all those virtues if God would just quarantine evil right now!

GEISTUR: But since God has reasons for not quarantining evil right now, you need to develop virtues for this life and for the life hereafter. This earth is an uncomfortable home, but it’s a great gymnasium for the hereafter.

STRAW: You Christians always punt to the hereafter…

Yes, God does not quarantine evil, so that we can develop virtues. And we need to develop those virtues because God does not quarantine evil. And anyway, 9-11… er, I mean, the afterlife.

Geistur never does quite explain how exactly we’re better prepared for heaven if we suffer here on earth. Maybe heaven really sucks and so God has to make us suffer in this life so that His “rewards” will seem to be an improvement? Once again, good needs evil in order to have the power to be truly good. Heaven, somehow, is not the kind of place that could be good enough all by itself, without the evil.

Geistur makes one last, feeble attempt to make earthly sufferings sound relevant to heaven, but it takes a bit of careful scripting. Geisler and Turek have to sneak the word “punt” into Mr. Straw’s line so that Geistur can make a neat segue into talking about football as a metaphor of how rewards are sweeter when you really have to work for them. Just imagine what it would feel like to win the Super Bowl!

In fact, Geistur is simply changing the subject: Mr. Straw brought up a good point about how suffering would be irrelevant to a believer’s experience in heaven, and the Christian basically says “Ooo, look a monkey!” Wave your hands, blow some smoke, and how about them Raiders eh? Anything to get off the point. He never quite explains how winning the Super Bowl is like the victory believers experience in heaven, he just claims that they’re alike.

But what’s particularly ironic is that Geistur’s metaphor blows up in his face. Yeah, I bet it feels great to win a Super Bowl, and yeah it’s probably a lot of hard work and grunt time. But here’s the deal: the winning team didn’t need to be raped as little boys in order to prepare them for that tremendous victory. They didn’t have to try and exterminate the Jews to make touchdowns. They still got to experience the strength- and character-building process of striving for glory without the need to resort to evil in order to empower themselves.

God could take a pointer or two from a buncha dumb jocks. Despite Geistur’s frantic hand-waving attempts to make it sound like evil really isn’t so bad, and is in fact a valuable tool for helping us win our own personal spiritual victories, there are non-evil ways to accomplish everything good that Geistur is trying to give evil credit for. And it’s Geistur himself who points out this alternative.

All of Geistur’s excuses for God fail for that simple reason. Not only does God have countless lesser ways that He could be opposing evil, but there’s not even any need for evil to exist to be opposed. Ordinary, uninspired sports fans can come up with alternatives that build character, self-discipline, and moral fiber, without depending on sin to accomplish their goals. And if the God that Geistur preaches were a God that really existed, then He could do that too.

But He doesn’t, so He can’t, and that’s why Geisler and Turek have to hide their discussion of evil in an appendix.