Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Thoughts

LOOK AT THE GRAPHIC INSTEAD. It's Holy Week and therefore Open Season on Christians in the mass media. (Is it ever Open Season on muslims during Ramadan?) We've had a provocative cover story about the "Death of Christian America" in Newsweek, followed by a hasty clarification from that article's anxious author. HotAir's Allahpundit chose Good Friday itself for a link to this jackassery, which reinforces his customary snarky atheism. And we've already noted at this site the embarrassing bankruptcy of the Episcopal/Anglican Church that underscores the media's delighted focus on this bizarre phenomenon.

Ordinarily, we at InstaPunk address such phenomena in a scattershot, ad-hoc, and frequently satirical fashion, in response to current events rather than specific dates, but today is Good Friday, and I've decided to respond more seriously than usual. (Feel free to run away...) Fortunately, there is one recent event that provides a basis for focused discussion. It was a debate about atheism between Christopher Hitchens and Dr. William Lane Craig, described in this article as "an 'evidentialist' in that he argues for the existence of God based on evidence not presupposition." I'll give you three excerpts from the account of the debate and then address some of the arguments on both sides. Sound fair? Excerpt One:

The debate began with Dr. Craig’s opening arguments. He made a challenge to leave our bias at the door. Impossible, I know, but he claimed that the debate would be fought on philosophical arguments. He would rule out bad arguments, offer the historicity and logic of his good arguments, then challenge Hitchens to make a positive argument for his own atheism. This demonstrates Craig’s adherence to formal debate tactics. He doesn’t take his positions based on emotion or preference, he uses argument and reason and follows the evidence.

Dr. Craig’s evidence is presented in 5 different lines of argument:

1. The Cosmological Argument; Whatever begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefore, the universe has a cause. God is the best explanation for that cause.

2. The Teleological Argument; The fine-tuning of the universe is so improbable that law or chance aren’t adequate explanations. God is the best explanation.

3. The Moral Argument; If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. Rape isn’t just culturally unacceptable, it’s actually wrong.

4. The Resurrection of Jesus; The vast majority of historians generally agree that the tomb was empty. Separately, the vast majority of historians generally agree that Jesus appeared to people post-mortem. The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” is the best explanation of these facts.

5. The Immediate Experience of God; Belief that God exists may be rationally accepted as a basic belief not grounded in argument.

Excerpt Two:

Hitch doesn’t claim knowledge that there is no God. He claims ignorance, though he avoids calling himself an agnostic. Because he doesn’t know and Dr. Craig claims to know that God exists, the disadvantage goes to the one who says, “I know.” He says that given the stakes are so extra-ordinary (ie judgment, Heaven and hell, dying for one’s faith, killing in the name of God) the evidence provided by Dr. Craig wasn’t extra-ordinary enough to prove a God exists.

The most common argument made by Hitchens was that the world contained so much cruelty and brutality for most living creatures across most of existence that a good God didn’t seem likely, and that if He did exist that He had a lot of bloodshed to answer for. He gave examples of the pre-Christ and even pre-Jewish people who died without ever knowing the one true God. That their lives were lost in ignorance and that only recently does God come on the scene to save some. Hitch returned to this line of reasoning so many times that I’d say it was his core reason for disbelieving God.

Hitch went back to how our belief that God should personally be so concerned with us that we should have the benefit of being born post-Christ to enjoy salvation was a form of solipsism. “It’s all about us.” he said, “Everything else was wasted, but at least we’re here.”

Throughout the rest of the debate, be it the rebuttal, the conclusion, the question/answer, Hitchens returns to this classic problem of suffering, and mocks believers for finding selfish meaning in the midst of evil; “You’re a worm but take heart, it’s all made for you.”

Excerpt Three:

[I]n my opinion., though Dr. Craig won the argument (he was the only one who even presented a formal argument), Hitchens won the debate. It’s not the argument of the debaters, it’s the condition of the audience that wins the day. While few of Dr. Craig’s arguments are dispersed through culture, even religious culture, I’ve been raised on most of Hitchens’ arguments. Dr. Craig’s arguments are true and well-reasoned by difficult to comprehend on a first hearing. Hitchens’ arguments are what we’ll find spoken against God on prime time television, at the water-cooler, I’ve even heard some of them on Animal Planet. Culture generally makes Hitchens’ argument by default. And it’s easier to claim the skeptic’s nothing than affirm the something of God…even when I think the most robust argument is self evident to all of us…we’re here.

I think this is an excellent preface to thoughtful discussion. It illustrates the disconnect between the theological position and the secular position. The theologians want to talk about existence itself and its meaning or lack of it, and the secularists want to contrast the primitive mind which "invented" God with the rational mind that has come to perceive a vast gulf between mythology and hard science, and between naive faith and brutal facts.The theologians are asking, "How could we be here at all if there weren't some supreme power behind the universe beyond our ability to fully comprehend?," while the secularists are declaring, "If there is a God, he has a hell of a lot to answer for: Nature is vicious, men are vicious, all so-called scriptures are ignorant "Just So" stories, and at least the "Just So" stories of science are backed by objective observation, measurements not conceived of in Biblical times, hard data, and a far less anthropomorphic perspective. If there is a God, he can't be anything like your conception of him."

If I've stated the terms of disagreement fairly, everyone should be nodding their heads about now. I'm going to take an additional step toward fairness here. You'll note I used the term 'secularist' rather than 'atheist' in my initial description of the conflict. That's because I believe most self-professed atheists are not really taking a cosmological position but a cultural position. They're not presuming they know where the universe came from but rather asserting that all organized religions date from a time when we knew less about everything, particularly matters scientific, and are therefore evidently uninformed. They believe that all important matters -- social, moral, and political -- should be decided rationally and scientifically rather than in terms of what ignoramuses past projected onto a dimly understood and largely unexplored world. To me, the term that best describes this position is "secularist," not "atheist" or even "agnostic." The existence or nonexistence of some supreme power, however defined, is simply irrelevant to the decisions we make in our lives. Is that fair? I believe so.

Now then. I still propose to take the position that the secularists are demonstrably wrong and that the evidence favors the Christian perspective more than it does the secular perspective. Some of my arguments are old, and some are, well, new. But how can I dare to make such an argument in the first place? Because when it's impossible to find some external point of comparison to use as a control (i.e., some other example of intelligent life that grappled with matters of divinity and meaning), we are compelled to look inward and learn from the recurring or exceptional patterns of our own experience at every level of scale. All our evidence about existence and its meaning or lack of it comes from the sum total of human knowledge and experience to date. If we can't find external points of comparison, we must resort to internal points of comparison, of which, it turns out, there are virtually infinite examples. If these consistently resonate with one another, we can begin to extrapolate some universality, even about dimensions of existence beyond or below ourselves we know little about.

For example, let's consider one of the prime axioms of science. If there is a large measurable effect, there must be a powerful cause. A dropped brick falls to the earth. The moon orbits the earth without wandering away. Related effects across a range of scales. There must be a cause. The more universal and consistent the effect, the more powerful the cause. Gravity. One of the four known forces of the universe that explain its operation. At one extreme lies black holes, where gravity is so powerful it sucks in everything that comes within its remotest influence. At the other extreme lies what? A sparrow, a butterfly, a mosquito, a gnat that falls to earth when it dies. No one has ever seen gravity itself, only its effects. The secularists have exactly the same problem with Jesus Christ.

It is true that no one can prove Jesus Christ ever existed, let alone prove that he was a superposition of human and divine identities who died for all of us and rose again from the dead, offering eternal life after death and eternal redemption from something called sin. But the effects of this invisible cause, whatever it was, are far too huge to ignore. Indeed, the effects are so stupendously enormous across all scales of human experience that it is laughable to credit objections based on sharpshooting the verifiable historicity or lack of it of the Bible. Note, expressly, that I am not postulating the accuracy of the four gospels when I use the word laughable in the context of Biblical criticism. What I'm saying is that secularists are faced with an incredibly intimidating Christian mystery of their own -- if Christ didn't exist and wasn't who he said he was, how do you explain  what happened afterwards?

And let's not make any mistake about what happened afterwards. The cultural changes wrought by Christianity on our earth are the single biggest ongoing act of creation that we know of since the origin of life and the still theoretical Big Bang. This invisible cause, whatever it consisted of, redefined human consciousness to such a degree that it led to everything we now take for granted about ourselves -- our sense of ourselves as individuals, the proliferation of competing interpretations of the originating events in the form of hundreds of variant denominations of "the faith" that continue blooming to this day, the egoistic impulse toward liberty across lines of class and in defiance of authoritarian aristocratic governments, and the curiosity that spawned modern science in the first place, including cosmology, medicine, chemistry, biology, zoology, anthropology, evolution, psychology, and even economics. Without that invisible, unverifiable cause, all but a few of Christianity's fiercest critics wouldn't exist at all.

The messiah who wasn't somehow also fathered atheism, marxism, existentialism, absurdism, and the Matrix. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Hitchens who mocks Christianity wouldn't even exist without it. The mind that he applies to the argument, the self who experiences such a volatile antipathy to what he perceives as the tyranny of misbegotten myth, would be empty, undifferentiated, and mute. Indeed, his is the greater solipsism by far than any he imputes to Christians. For he, like most secularists, imagines that somehow he could still be who he is in all his rancorous ridicule, without the 2,000 year intellectual, artistic, philosophical, and political tradition that produced him, which is overwhelmingly Christian.

Which is to say that he wishes to bask and preen in the effects of the Christian tradition even as he presumes to subtract from that tradition the cause his scientific allegiance demands must exist.

Christopher Hitchens is himself a kind of proof of the Christ.

Is there a muslim Hitchens? No. If there were, he'd have been dead long before this. We'd never have have been allowed to hear of him of him, let alone listen to him. Which is a point of contact with the real miracle of Christianity that distinguishes it from all other major religions. And a point of contact with the fallacy of secularist objections to Christianity that demonstrates just how shallow those objections are.

First things first. There's a notion abroad these days that Islam is some kind of serious rival to Christianity as a religion in terms of its scope and power. It isn't. They are not rivals but opposites. Only the enemies of Christianity commit the fraud of comparing them as if they were somehow equivalent.
If we're keeping track of some hierarchy of scripture and its relation to what we think we know now about human nature and morality, here's the ranking in terms of Most Advanced (1) to Most Barbaric (3):

1) New Testament
2) Old Testament
3)  Koran

Let's compare 2) and 3) to begin. The Hitchens (and Allahpundits) of this world love to deride the most arbitarily judgmental sections of the Old Testament. In its pages, they claim to see a God who is vengeful, violent, and even psychotic. What they never see is that the OT is also a record of the people who worshipped that God. That as the Israelites became more civilized, Yahweh (wonder of wonders) also became more forgiving (suggesting that God changes his aspect to man as man becomes more able to interact intelligently). That Psalms is more wise than Leviticus. That Isaiah is more individuated and interesting than Amos. That Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are more wise than Hemingway.  That what we're seeing in the Old Testament is the transition from early proto-consciousness to modern consciousness. The god of three-year-olds is likely to be less nuanced than the god of twelve-year-olds. The Old Testament does establish itself reliably as part of a continuum to the New Testament. The variable is not God, but men. The Bible is the story of the raising of men from childhood to adulthood.

The Koran contains no such story of growth, It is all variations on Leviticus. Full of laws not to be broken, ever, and hatreds galore. To read the Koran against the Old Testament is to uncover a vicious imitative hoax against the original it's copied from. The Old Testament is about maturation. The Koran is about control. The histories of the peoples who followed these scriptures are the evidence. The Jews were both victimized and enlightened by the effects of the follow-on to their scripture called the New Testament. Their resistance to its status as divine revelation cost them blame and persecution, but they absorbed every lesson it offered about individual mentality. They flourished in every new discipline made possible by Christianity's devotion to the spark of divinity in aspiring minds. Both testaments are needed to explain the contributions of Einstein, Schopenhauer, Mahler, and Freud. They loved God but abjured hope. That's their curse. Despite their obsession with the artistic imagery of Christianity, they could never bring themselves to believe or wholly embrace it. Having precipitated the greatest leap forward in human consciousness ever, they insisted on remaining obstinately outside its implications, which almost cost them their existence.

But they knew those implications nevertheless. (Today's Jews are Christians minus the belief in Christ as Son of God.) The New Testament is the single greatest work of scripture in the history of life on earth. Why? Because it is endlessly productive and provocative at every scale. It is too internally contradictory to be read successfully as didactic. And while it speaks directly to matters of right and wrong and other spiritual matters, its centerpiece is not a list of rules but the most creatively open-ended  symbol ever promulgated in religious terms.

The cross is the "X" that marks the spot of human existence in so many ways that it can never run out of ways to be ingeniously reinterpreted, almost always in ways that are positive for the human spirit. (That's the reason for the unending establishment of new Christian denominations, some of which are despised orphans but all of which are part of the endless flowering of the story.) The story that goes with that cross is also endlessly creative and consistent with both human and divine stories before and after its putative place in time. The story is local, universal, philosophical, psychological, mythological, historical, human, archetypal, personal, passionate, abstract, symbolical, dramatic, sensual, ambiguous, allegorical, literal, literary, architectural, and, in its impossible aggregate of all these, clearly transcendent. The men who existed before this time were not so much damned as insufficiently developed to be conscious of an afterlife, Socrates and a few others excluded.

One simple story that knits together every conceivable story ever told about the human condition. Unfolding in a (relatively) few pages of an archaic document in an obsolete language. The word "metaphor" is to the gospels what the word "big" is to the cosmological definition of infinity.

I've never heard any secularist (or atheist) who can explain away this mountain of mystery. Our own times have produced masses of conspiracy theories, hoaxes, compelling fictions. The desire to believe on behalf of a greater meaning can perpetuate compelling fictions, or else we wouldn't have had fifty-plus years of Kennedy assassination literature, but truth tends to weigh in at the end like a ten ton weight. Oswald owned the rifle that killed Kennedy. The shot that killed Kennedy was fired from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald was there at the time. He killed a police officer while he was running away from the scene of the crime. Only 40-some years into this mesmerizing mysteryon, we can already foresee eventually accepting that Oswald was a lone, meaningless assassin. If you reject any of these conclusions, ask what you are willing to pay for your beliefs. Are you willing to die, 100 years after the fact, because you personally knew the identity of the people who killed a nonfictional character named John F. Kennedy? You might feel emotionally and intellectually that you possess the truth, but are you so sure that you would die a horrible death for your belief? Torn apart by lions in the coliseum?

Really? But people were stupid back then, right? They were willing to be tortured horribly to death on account of someone who never existed, just because he said stuff that couldn't possibly help them live easier lives in the current political regime. Until their beliefs forced an authoritarian empire to agree. Fine. Now explain to me the process by which the United States and Europe suddenly agree to accept Scientology as a state religion. Are you you starting to grasp the dimensions of the mystery?

A final comparison on this Good Friday. Christianity has produced so many variations of its original story that there are those who have amputated themselves from their sources. As I've written previously here, I believe most of the fundamentalist and evangelical "Born Again" sects of Christianity have done exactly this. Their desire to read the Bible "literally" is a flat denial of where the Bible came from and the languages in which it was originally written. This denial has deservedly earned them scorn from rationalists and, yes, secularists. But here's what's decidedly odd. When the Hitchens of the world attack Christianity, do they attack the much greater and older population of Christians who see the Bible as an infinitely layered metaphor subject to many nuances of meaning, or do they snipe at the easy targets of those who claim their American 'revised standard version' is word for word true?

The answer is, of course, the latter. The secularists just love to beat up on the people who see the Bible as a strict roadmap to heaven. But I would argue that this is just one more instance of the dictum that you target the enemy who most resembles you (e.g., Nazi totalitarians in Germany hated Boshevik totalitarians in Russia). That is, the fundamentalists have made themselves targets because they are most like the secularists. They are mirrors of each other, narrow, preemptive, and intolerant.

Fundamentalists exist in an absurd bubble of false history. They reject the fact that the Bible they take so literally was constructed by a Roman Catholic Church they dismiss as heretical. They behave as if their Christianity were a spontaneous act of divination, achieved directly through a book whose origins their fragile theology would require them to disdain. Secularists also exist in an absurd bubble of false history. They reject the fact that the science they take so dogmatically was inspired by devout Christians (like Isaac Newton) they now dismiss as superstitious fools. They behave as if their (claimed) pristine objectivity were a self-generated manifestation of wisdom, achieved in spite of the book that gave rise to their own reactionary disciplines and derivative personal identities.

The ony inequity here is that the fundamentalists are scorned and transparent while the secularists are admired and ambiguous. Both are small subsets of the historical populations created by the Christian enlightenment. They're both sideshows. Educated Christians aren't much impressed by the quest to find Noah's Ark on some mountain that can be called be Ararat. Nor are they impressed by scientists who claim they fully understand the evolution of humankind when they can't begin to explain the origins of life.

It was the great physicist George Richard Feynman who said, "If I can't create it, I can't claim to understand it." (I used to call him George when we hung out together at NASCAR races. He never corrected me. My bad.)

That statement alone elucidates the difference between a real scientist and the kind of poseur we see in Richard Dawkins.

But in the interim, we'll have to put up with pretentious secularists jeering at contradictions in the Bible as if plot holes are all that's necessary to make up for the glaring hole where an explanation of the existence of the universe should be.

Today, though, I'm going to commit the irrational act of imagining the meaning of crucifixion and resurrection. As if I were a Christian. As stupid an exercise as that might be.

So I'll do the unthinkable. I'll visualize Christ on the cross, dying for me. And for you, too. With this in mind.

FAIR WARNING: This fairness thing is a bitch. Okay. I have to warn you that this post contains some deliberate holes, which are, in fact, traps set for the unwary. If you come charging in through those holes, you WILL be ambushed. Sorry. I know it's not Christian, but Scots have never been more than half-Christian. And I'm still more than a double-bogey away from Scottish par on that. So. You Know. Be advised.

UPDATE. Thanks, Fred. For some technical reason I can't fathom, I can't even respond to a comment on my own post at this particular moment. But I'm humbled by what you said. Convey my best to your brother the priest.

UPDATE. Beckoning Chasm likes Palestrina. So do we.

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