Saturday, January 21, 2012

Stomping Grounds

This is a present-day picture of a fund-raising event--the Stepathon. It takes place in Pittsburgh on the city's Northside, in the area where I grew up. (And where, apropos nothing, Jehovah's Witnesses began.)

I can't believe that there was a time when I wouldn't have given the staircase (we called them "city steps") a second thought. I lived on a hill, in a neighborhood called called Fineview because it had a "fine view" of the city's skyline. City steps were ubiquitous.

Dispensationalism and The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most important passages of scripture. It is interesting what the different systematic theologies make of it.

Dispensationalism's long-time rival, Covenant Theology, teaches (wrongly and indefensibly, in my opinion--although I am in general a great fan) that Jesus was correcting Pharisaical distortions of Mosaic law, or perhaps clarifying misunderstandings.

Classic Dispensationalism (Left-Behind-ism) has a particularly interesting and equally indefensible position. They teach that the Sermon, while perhaps offering good advice for Christians, is actually the rule of life for the Millennial Kingdom. We read, for example:

According to both Old Testament and New Testament, righteousness and peace are the great words of the [millennial] kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is the expansion of the personal righteousness, which is required in the [millennial] kingdom. The great words in this present dispensation [the church age] are believe and grace. Not once do these words appear in connection with the [millennial] kingdom teachings of the Sermon (Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace the Glorious Theme, p. 164).

another example:

In His early ministry to Israel the Lord Jesus gave none of the great heavenly truths for the present Church dispensation. He but mentioned the Church, giving no explanation. Nor were these vital Church truths revealed to the Twelve.
Paul is the declarer of the Gospel of the grace of God to us - Take Romans to Philemon out of the Bible and you are bereft of Christian doctrine. For instance, if you were to take Paul’s Epistles out of the Bible, you could not find anything about the Church, or the Body of Christ; for no other Apostle even mentions the Body of Christ (W. Newell, Peter vs. Paul, p. 6).

We see then that according to classic Dispensationalism the law (rule of life) for the church comes from the Pauline epistles, not from the Lord's great sermon.

New Covenant Theology--a nascent movement primarily in Reformed Baptist circles-- has a third view: that Jesus is replacing the Mosaic law, including if not primarily the Ten Commandments, with a fuller (and final, prior to the end of human history) revelation of God's moral law. Moses' law is a type or foreshadowing of Jesus' law--much like virtually everything in the Old Testament is a type of what was to come in the fullness of time.

Thus when Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."
The Covenant Theologian has to argue, absurdly, that Jesus is "correcting" some manner of bad teaching of Moses' law, when in fact Jesus quotes the exact words of the commandment and then contrasts his teaching against the exact words. The dispensationalist must argue that this teaching is not intended for the church, but the inhabitants of a future millennial kingdom. The New Covenant Theologian has the cleanest explanation: Jesus is not saying what was taught before was bad, but what he is offering now is new and better--befitting a new and better covenant and a new and better priesthood.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Guest Post: Michael Heath

Below is Michael Heath's response to my preceding post.


You’re conceding a certain descriptive to make a leap into the prescriptive. I think such a leap will guarantee a sub-optimal dialogue on the prescriptive since the descriptive premises required for an optimal dialogue aren’t well-established, at least on my end and between both of us. I’ll play along on this post, but I strongly suggest we spend future energies more on the morality of people celebrating the existence and nature of a god who punishes eternally – where I presume you belong to this group. Additionally I would love to see a defense of God, as you understand the Bible describes him that asserts he is not evil in spite of his promising to punish some eternally. Unless of course you concede the point he is incredibly evil, which I doubt you, do.

In addition I don’t conclude, at least yet, that Christians who celebrate a god they believe will punish humans for eternity are therefore evil themselves. I’ll play along here, but that’s not a conclusion I’ve reached. I’ve just started this line of thought and read nothing on the matter so I won’t go there because I’m confident others far smarter or better-informed have taken positions that would greatly expand my perception of this issue, and hopefully present compelling arguments I’d never come up with myself. So I’m far more interested in considering your position on these descriptive points.

I also disagree the ball is in my court, I find that analogy doesn’t work here at all. I’d argue for a plethora of responsibilities some owned by me and more owned by you given your a member of the set who believe in this type of god. So I would instead suggest we consider the degrees to which each of us is associated with those acting badly.

As a fellow human and ultimately, an American, I do take some responsibility that people celebrate a biblical god who punishes eternally based on their fealty to an inerrant Bible because I think the premises lead to the following conclusions:
1) The primary premises allowing this belief system have primarily been falsified or lack empirical evidence. And because this type of belief is based on certain biblical passages where the Bible is asserted to be both inerrant and the word of God, incoherent. That train of thought is problematic for all us because I think this incoherent reasoning continues to enable our culture in its pervasive celebration of faith as a beneficial human attribute. I instead find faith to be an infantile character defect which impedes human progress while increasing human suffering.
2) This belief coupled to the association of believers into various religious denominations and other religious-centric groups have caused and continue to cause increased human suffering.
3) Because the U.S. has over the past five decades experienced a merging of believers in this category with political conservatism and this religious-political movement has come to significantly influence policy, this suffering has extended beyond these believers and their close associates and now harms all U.S. citizens while also threatening the well-being of all humans. [Re the future threat of all humans: American Christian conservatives are the primary voting base that allows the Republican party to successfully obstruct even confronting the fact of climate change along with the grave threat it poses to human wellbeing and life on this planet.]

I do take my responsibility seriously. I don’t just comment in Ed’s blog, I write and advocate elsewhere. Just recently I had an on-going private dialogue with the local editor of our local newspaper. We are on good terms. He’s a social conservative in a rural red-state area so red it’s uncommon for us to have Democrats running for local office. Yet he writes columns as if Christians are persecuted when people criticize Christians for acting out their faith in the public square. The people criticizing such public acts were not demanding these public demonstrations of piety end; they were only criticizing them for making such demonstrations. My motivation here was first to get him to make better arguments given that as editor, he writes opinion columns. He’s a young guy where he graciously accepted my offer to read two books I recommend which teach how to identify bad arguments and build good ones, qualities I would have thought he’d have learned getting his degree in journalism.

A few years back we had our state representative, Kevin Elsenheimer, make a very Rick Santorum-like argument regarding gay rights in our local newspaper. His argument was that his church’s teachings (Catholic) condemned gays. He then argued that his personal religious beliefs were justification for him to legislate in a manner that denied gays their rights. He never mentioned his constitutional obligations or even mentioned any regret on how his position would harm the gay people and their family members in his district. I wrote a published letter to the editor conceding his right of conscience to believe this, but how it violated the principles inherent to the enlightenment, Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and was in direct violation of the 14th Amendment of the plain meaning of the Constitution as well. I also made a policy argument he had an obligation to represent the interests of all his constituents, not just those who were heterosexual. I received two death threats from that letter, calls to my home. Thank goodness I answered the phone both times rather than my wife.

I received my first death threat for defending a local family when their gay son’s wedding announcement was published in the local paper which caused a ruckus, largely centered on people objecting to such an announcement being published, “in a family newspaper” (actually it’s our area’s paper of record). Of course these arguments were predominately based on the critics Christian beliefs. My letter defending this family and arguing we should celebrate gay people taking on the responsibilities of family was worthy of our admiration, not an event that justified shoving gays back into the closet in a manner that enables gays to be persecuted precisely because the larger Christian community seeks they continue to suffer being ostracized.

These are merely a few examples; as a human and an American I am actively engaged at the local, state, and national level advocating for policies that are based on our country’s secular founding values where we leave religious beliefs at the door if those beliefs are contra to the first principles of this country (freedom, equal rights, rights of conscience, and pursuit of happiness to name a few of a long list). That has me calling my U.S. representatives office, writing letters to my governor and Congressional members, and contributing to organizations like the ACLU, Americans United, and politicians I think have the character to govern on behalf of all their constituents without seeking to ostracize some as a way to gain political advantage, power, and money.

I also personally lobby (in-person, never email) my extended family advocating they differentiate their obligations to their church and how that can conflict with their obligations in our free society as U.S. citizens. These conversations are decreasing for obvious reasons, they’re committed and by attribute, incapable of adapting. [A close family member and many of her fellow church members continue to advocate for the current president’s death because they’re convinced he’s a covert Muslim operative and member of al Qaeda, where they get this idea because of their religious association.]

While I would never directly advise my nephews and nieces on religion, most have no idea what I believe, I do present my siblings, their parents, with arguments their obligation to their children should have them considering those kids getting the best education possible rather than merely indoctrinating them as they prefer. That such indoctrinal tactics are ultimately selfish and limit their children’s future. They of course seek to save their kids souls by lying to them about what is and what is not true, and paying “teachers” to do the same.

This issue is not my primary concern however, that’s because unlike you David, I’m not so directly associated with these people as you are. In addition I’m currently become far more concerned about what I perceive is a far greater threat, that of climate change. So my free-time energies are often spent more on that topic than others.

I don’t think there is a cookie-cutter response to your question and therefore find it some nonsensical. Some people work to reduce the suffering of animals, should they stop and all focus on children? We each have to judge if we’re doing enough. However that doesn’t deny our respective responsibilities, I’ll gladly carry that burden and do what I think is the best I can.

I do find your responsibility to be far more immense so I don’t think you do yourself any favors raising this question. So, I’m in a rhetorical corner? Hardly, I’d argue you’ve instead done that to yourself. To concede one is evil doesn’t remove the responsibility I think you have for the planet and humanity so I can’t follow the logic, “the ball is in my court.” Your closer association to this evil should obviously put a far bigger burden on you than on me.

David writes, “What action do you advocate against evil such as I am, or do you just stand by and then, by similar reasoning by association, become a guilty accomplice?”

If we belong to a group with fundamental issues which harm others, and they all do to some degree, I think each of us has a personal responsibility to always do the following:
1) Vociferously seek reform
2) Quit. I admire people who work for authentic reform even when their odds are nil to low. I spent 5 additional years in the Republican party advocating for reform, finally leaving the evening of the 2008 National Convention delegates unanimously approved Sarah Palin to be their VP nominee. I don’t have the wisdom necessary to create and offer a formulaic method on when to stop seeking reform from within and quit. I don’t regret quitting the GOP because I don’t see a candidate, officials, or even voters who even remotely approaches past Republicans I admired, like MI’s long-time governor, Bill Milliken.
3) For those issues we find have a grave impact on us and/or others, own responsibility and continue to advocate for reform on those where you think you have the talent and resources to make a difference.

When I was young I actually thought hard and long about remaining in the denomination I was raised and seeking reform. I decided that the very structure set-up by evangelical and fundamentalist organizations makes any such efforts nearly impossible, both within the denominations and their so-called colleges. That’s because they reject the journey seeking objective truth; they instead demand members submit to a set of “truths” where there are few viable if any viable options to seek reform. At least I thought that, growing up in a small rural area I was never exposed to the fact some local faith communities do change denominations because influential members convince enough of the others. But still, what’s the odds of and uneducated (at the time) late-teen/early-twenty convincing his church that not only was the Bible not the inerrant word of God, but it wasn’t even rational to believe in a judging triune god who has us destined for either Heaven and Hell.

And while I left that church, I continued to study religion, formally at university and even more ardently informally after university, from 1985 to the mid-2000s. That was in order to authentically test fundamentalist/evangelical truth claims and later in this time period, make better arguments to convince people to abandon faith, seek objective truth using the best methods possible, and do what morally right rather than act out in a way you can justify with Bible verses. I was especially motivated to change minds due to the persecution of gays I encountered either by conservative Christians, or enabled by them. This wasn’t merely due to what I read in the news, but persecution I personally encountered where I got involved to stop. (Public school bullying that was defended by the principal, a certain Board Member, and an elder of my church. Where the Board member was the Board’s president and my pastor and the elder was a close relative. Only the superintendent was empathetic to the persecution gays were subjected to in our school.)

So I don’t see our responsibilities ending if we sought to reform and failed and quit. I do think it’s not easy to calculate the level of effort we should expend and claim we acted with integrity. I will assert with confidence you have far more responsibility to act on this matter than I do precisely due to your association being degrees closer than me.

And while I’d find a response to my points here interesting, if you have limited amounts of time I’d much prefer getting into believers’ moral culpability for celebrating a god who punishes eternally. Especially given the nature of this reality and God’s supposed powers and role in the development of this reality

Saturday, January 14, 2012

If I am evil, what then?

Ed Brayton (and many others) are posting on the ugly comments/threats/harassment faced by the high-school girl Jessica Ahlquist, who won her lawsuit over a large prayer mural on display at her public high school.1 The mural will be removed. I agree with the decision. I am not sure why any Christian thinks we are mandated to post doctrine, theology, or prayers in public areas. There is nothing in the New Testament that instructs us to make such in-your-face empty gestures. There is no precedent. If we are to offend, it is only by presenting the gospel, when it is welcomed. Otherwise dust off your feet and move on. It is certain that we are not to offend by vulgar displays of power (which we have enjoyed in the US over the years--arguably not to our benefit) over what is displayed in the public spaces we share with unbelievers and advocates of other faiths.

I expressed my contempt for the hate with this comment:

I truly despise, with what I hope is a righteous anger but what I suspect is garden-variety revulsion, those Christians who made such hate-filled comments. It demonstrates the truth, yet again, that the church has nothing to fear from atheists–they are impotent in their ability to harm us–we can only harm ourselves. One of these vile comments does more damage than a sea of gnu atheists. What an utter embarrassment, disgrace and humiliation.

Dispatches superstar commenter Michael Heath2 responded to my comment:
Your post rings hollow for two reasons:

1) Your refusal to own to up to the reality and I think, your own personal responsibility, that it is your form of biblical inerrant beliefs that enables, justifies, and maximizes people who believe and think like this.

2) That you too celebrate the existence of a god who promises to punish eternally. These people’s very role model is no different than the OT god who hates and the NT god who promises eternal punishment and to bring a sword. Yes it requires the avoid certain biblical verses to so, but there’s also ample verses that also support such a position.
Whether you like it or not heddle, you are far more closely associated with this reprehensible behavior than you are to those who condemn such beliefs. As I wrote in my previous post, believing such, mourning this perception, and working to save others because of this belief is a moral high ground. But celebrating such a reality as you do should have us seriously considering whether such behavior is also demonstrably evil. I do not yet weigh in because I've just started considering this and have read little on the topic to weigh others’ good arguments.
I then have the following question for Michael:

Let's grant your argument or at least your potential argument. Let's accept that my brand of biblical-inerrancy, hell-affirming Christianity—even if I do not commit acts such as those described in Ed’s post—even if I unambiguously condemn such acts-- is inherently evil.

That then leaves the ball in your court, does it not? Are you going to be the proverbial good man who does nothing, allowing evil to win? What action do you advocate against evil such as I am, or do you just stand by and then, by similar reasoning by association, become a guilty accomplice? Do you think blog-commenting is a sufficient response to evil? What are you going to do about it?

Yes, I'm trying to paint Michael in a corner--but he is quite formidable so I fully suspect I haven't.

1 One cannot rule out the possibility that some of the comments are from non-Christians, designed to make Christians look bad—but at the same time we must admit the likelihood that most of the comments do indeed come from professing Christians. We are good at making ourselves look bad.

I mean that in a sincerely complimentary fashion. No Dispatches commenter is as noted as Michael Heath for a sustained record of well-reasoned responses.

Friday, January 13, 2012

I am Richard Carrier. I have demonstrated this. I have refuted that.

It boggles the mind when people claim, definitively, that they have refuted the bible. If they were to say: Here is a serious problem for those who affirm biblical inerrancy--well that would be one thing. But to claim to have demonstrated error--not just to have made a decent case for error--well that takes an especially small mind.

Such a mind is that of Richard Carrier.

Here he has a post concerned with a well-known problem, the mention Luke makes of a census:

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (Luke 2:1-2)

The problem being that this reference to Quirinius is anachronistic; the census when Quirinius was governor is known to have taken place in 6AD. There are various suggestions about solutions to this problem--frankly none very satisfying, but the problem, as I say, is well-known. It is not a "gotcha."

If you read Carrier's post you will see he characterizes this problem as "Matthew versus Luke." That is, he says Matthew places Jesus' birth at ~4BC and Luke around 6AD. That would indeed be a problem if it could be demonstrated.

That is where my exchange with Carrier begins. My first comment was:

You really are a dishonest piece of work. Or else just plain dumb.

Yes, convenient of you to couch the problem this way:

Haha! Matthew says one thing; OMG, Luke says something entirely different!

When in fact, Luke says exactly the same thing as Matthew. In Matthew we read:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king (Matt 2:1)

Luke write[s], in agreement with Matthew,

In the days of Herod, king of Judea (Luke 1:5)

Luke also writes, as you [Carrier] point out:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2)

And furthermore Luke also refers to the despised ca. 6AD census:

After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. (Acts 5:37)

Just in case this is too complicated for you, let me summarize. An honest person would not pit Matthew v. Luke. An honest person would have at least pointed out that Luke wrote:

1) The birth of Jesus was during the reign of Herod (consistent with Matthew.)
2) Luke also talks about the census of ~6AD in Acts.
3) Luke mysteriously talks about a census at the time of Christ’s birth

Why would an honest person do that? Because all the information from Luke paints a more complicated picture. Luke, like Matthew, had Jesus born in the time of Herod. Luke also mentions the hated ~6AD census. But Luke also puts a census at Jesus’ birth. Perhaps Luke is completely nuts and he refers to the same census twice—once placing it at its correct time and once placing it ~14 years earlier. Or maybe he was referring to two different events, at least in his mind. Who knows? It is still a problem, for which no satisfying solution is known, but it is not the trivial “Matthew says one thing Luke says another” problem that you stupidly portray. It is more nuanced than you explained. Or perhaps can handle.

Then you also (I can hardly believe it but why should I be surprised?) invoke the tiresome canard of playing “gotcha” with Christians with this problem of the early census and leaving them dumfounded. Why atheists, especially of the pseudo-intellectually variety, fantasize that they surprise us with their awesome biblical knowledge, is a great mystery. This problem is in the notes of any study bible of the kind most Christians own. It is discussed in Sunday schools and mentioned in sermons whenever these passages are discussed. We know the problem. You are not surprising us. Get over yourself.

Carrier responded with:

Heddle: Your argument makes no logical sense. Luke mentions the same census twice; how do you get out of that that he meant two different censuses? Luke doesn’t say Jesus was born under Herod the king, but that John the Baptist was. And Herod the Great was not the only king named Herod. Judea was ruled after Herod the Great’s death by Herod Archelaus, whom even Josephus designates a king. Luke does not tell us which Herod John the Baptist was born under. In fact, as he never mentions this Herod dying and being replaced by another before Quirinius arrives (whereas Matthew does), we should assume Luke means Archelaus. Luke also contradicts Matthew on numerous other points: e.g. the family of Jesus never goes to Egypt and even goes to Jerusalem every year in Luke; but they flee to Egypt and then never go to Judea at all until decades later in Matthew; Jesus’ family comes from Nazareth in Luke, but does not come from Nazareth in Matthew, they only settle there years later; etc. If we saw this in any other pair of histories, we would conclude they are contradicting each other and that one of them is surely wrong (if not both). But the contradiction as to the date is worst of all, because Luke places the birth in the 6 A.D. census, and Matthew places it before the 4 B.C. death of Herod the Great. Every attempt to argue Luke meant a different census is based on ludicrous arguments and embarrassingly incompetent historical claims, as I have extensively proved.

If you cannot think of anything new that I haven’t already refuted, please don’t waste people’s time here.

Well alllllrighty then. He has "extensively proved." He has "already refuted."

The debt the world owes to an intellect such as Carrier's--well if it weren't too silly to contemplate, we'd be tempted to thank god for a blessing of such incalculable worth!

And then I commented, which at the time I posted is still in moderation (the real purpose of this post is to preserve my second comment in case it never gets out of moderation) this:

heddle says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
January 13, 2012 at 10:41 am
Luke mentions the same census twice; how do you get out of that that he meant two different censuses?

I never said that. I said he mentions the census in a way that is a well-known problem, not sprung upon us by the enlightened Richard Carrier. I did not offer any solution to that problem, because I don’t have one. You are being dishonest again, claiming that I offered a discredited solution, when in fact the gist of my post was that you, with malice aforethought or plain ignorance, mischaracterized the situation as a trivial Matthew v. Luke problem.

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was born under Herod the king, but that John the Baptist was.

Oh my gosh. In Luke 1:39 Luke places Jesus in Mary’s womb at the same time John is in Elizabeth’s womb. So if John was born in Herod’s time, so was Jesus. Can you not put two and two together?

Luke doesn’t say Jesus was born under Herod the king, but that John the Baptist was. And Herod the Great was not the only king named Herod. Judea was ruled after Herod the Great’s death by Herod Archelaus, whom even Josephus designates a king. Luke does not tell us which Herod John the Baptist was born under.

Well if is not even Herod the great, then why did you make the feeble argument that Luke doesn’t say Jesus was born under Herod, but only that John was? That makes that point not just dumb (which it is, since they were born within months of one another) but also irrelevant.

But really, are you out of your mind? In v3:1 Luke mentions, at the time John the Baptist is about to start his adult ministry,

Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis

Here Luke demonstrates the practice that when Herod is not “the” Herod, one must give specifics. Yet you claim Luke referred to Archelaus simply as “King Herod”—even though he was never awarded that title—without distinguishing him from Herod the Great. But why would he not refer to Herod Antipas simply as King Herod, especially when, given the other references, such as to Pilate, there is no chance of confusion? Why the specificity for one and not the other. Why the incorrect title, causing more confusion due to the temporal proximity of their reigns? That is your argument? Seriously?

So let me recap your “argument.”

1) Luke doesn’t claim that Jesus was born under Herod, but only that John the Baptist was—and we’ll ignore the fact that he also claims that they were in the womb at the same time.

2) But that doesn’t matter anyway, because Plain “King Herod” in Luke 1 actually means Herod Archelaus. Who was never officially king.

Is that a fair representation?

But the contradiction as to the date is worst of all, because Luke places the birth in the 6 A.D. census,

No he doesn’t, you are full of crap. He places it at the same time. Because your argument that “King Herod” in Luke 1:5 is Archelaus cannot be supported. A fair criticism, which you seem to be incapable of making, is that Luke also, inexplicably, refers to a census at the time of Jesus’ birth. But your claim that he places Jesus’ birth at 6 AD is asinine.

If you cannot think of anything new that I haven’t already refuted, please don’t waste people’s time here.

You haven’t refuted anything, except in your own mind.