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Do you ever read atheist or agnostic authors and start to feel the existential weight of their unbelief? Do you ever follow out the ‘feeling’ that arises when you do that; particularly as you do so as a Christian? I do. Indeed, I just have been experiencing this sensation once again. I am in the process of reading Terry Eagleton (again); he is not even close to being a militant atheist; if anything he is a
soft atheist or searching agnostic. Nonetheless, he operates with machinations that are at overt odds with the Christian reality; particularly when it comes to who Jesus Christ claimed to be. So, just by way of old wounds I have a space to ‘feel’ the angst and utter hopelessness that this sort of agony of thought (ought) to produce; you know: ‘dark night of the soul’ sort of stuff.

My antidote to this sort of stuff, in years past, was to refer to the myriad of evangelical apologists out there; you know: William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland et al. But this isn’t all that satisfactory. The reason this isn’t ultimately satisfactory for me is because they aren’t defending the sort of God I already have a personal and dialogical relationship with. They, instead, are defending the god of the philosophers; the same god most atheists are rejecting. In that sense, if that was the god I was feeling angst about, I suppose what they write would offer assuage. But that’s not the God I know. So what I’ve come to recognize over the years is that there is a misidentification, not just by the atheists, but also by most of the Christian apologists, when it comes to the god they are arguing about.

Because of this, what brings me refreshment—after feeling the loss that someone like Eagleton inhabits, even if he doesn’t ‘feel’ the same loss, currently—is not to go to the “apologists,” but instead it is to go to the Christian Dogmaticians of the church. This is an interesting combine, really, because many of the apologists I am referring to would also refer to some of these church fathers when they are engaging in their defense of God. But again, I think there is a misidentification taking place on various fronts here. The apologists are mostly using the thoughts of some of these church fathers (whether these are patristic, mediaeval, post reformed orthodox, orthodox Lutheran etc.) in abstract ways; abstract in the sense that they are often disregarding the subtleties present in the thought of these various fathers. In other words, the fathers (and mothers) are typically writing for the edification of the church; not attempting to ‘defend’ say, the existence of God. The appeal in the fathers, often at best, is an aesthetic, not analytic one. As such, there is a depth dimension present in their writings that already requires a prior commitment to God’s Divine Revelation; something atheists and agnostics repudiate. In this vein, the fathers have the resource and access to the heavenlies to speak things into my heart that the apologists do not.

The antidote that works best for me these days—an antidote for curing the feeling of hell’s darkness—is not the apologists (who typically push me into this feeling of loss), but the fathers. When I read the fathers there is an encouragement that bears witness with my spirit, such that Jesus comes to be magnified; and God glorified. This is not to say that the fathers all have equal value, but instead to recognize that when I read sound Christian theological reflection there is a fire rekindled that is often quenched when engaging with the atheists (or even the apologists).

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When you read atheist authors (or at least agnostic ones), and this is surely what Terry Eagleton is—someone recently told me, on FaceBook, that Eagleton had returned to the Catholic church, but clearly from his writing in this book, he is still in the clasped fist of Marx and the Devil—you will assuredly run across things, as a Christian reader, that kick hard against the goads. While I am being enriched by many of the insights Eagleton has written, even in exposition of Scripture, I ran across one of those paragraphs where it becomes clear that Eagleton hasn’t, as of yet, repented and bowed the knee to the living God in the Risen Christ. In the following quote from him you will see his view of Jesus’s ability to predict the future (an attribute of God), and actually what I take to be a very facile reading of Jesus’s voice in the Gospels. I will respond laterally, and point out the sort of petitio principii (circular reasoning) Eagleton engages in. Here he is talking about the specter and reality of death, and how an ethics can be nobly wrought even in its unrelenting teeth.

To take no heed for tomorrow is possible only by living in the knowledge of that ultimate tomorrow which is death. It is an invitation not to forget about time, but to be mindful of the end of time. Jesus, along with some of those who preached his gospel, seemed to have imagined that the kingdom of God was imminent, which proved to be a rather sizeable error. To their mind, history was simply eschatology. The church had simply to stand fast, surrendered in faith to the Lord who was soon to return. Even so, to live as if the Day of Judgement were at hand, and thus as if the only pressing matters were justice and fellowship, is not an ethics to be scorned. If there is to be any eternity, it must surely be here and now. ‘Eternal life’, writes Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ‘belongs to those who live in the present’. And since to live in the present, were it possible, would mean to live out of time, it is a way of anticipating one’s death. It is another sense in which, in Eliotic phrase, the moment of death is every moment.[1]

First off, I think Eagleton, just for his own health, would do well to put down his stein of continental spirits, and instead pick up, at first, the chalice filled with the pure milk of the living Word of God; only later to move onto meatier things. But beyond that, let’s respond further.

Clearly, Eagleton is imbibing the Quest for Jesus inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer, back in the day; you know, the eschatological Jesus who was clearly wrong and in ‘sizeable error’ about his imminent return. Further, and this is where we recognize the petitio principii, Eagleton presupposes that Jesus is ‘clearly’ just another [hu]man, which thus delimits the foresight of Jesus’s predictive pronouncements to the ‘near’ future. In other words, since Eagleton starts with his conclusion about Jesus being in ‘error,’ he uses his conclusion about Jesus as his major premise in regard to who Jesus is and his capacities. What these leads to is the conclusion not only that Jesus is just another man, but that because of this, Jesus could err; because to err is human after all. What if Eagleton started with orthodox grammar and premise about Jesus; what if he started with the Chalcedonian settlement and homoousion? If Eagleton started with the premise that Jesus was (and is!) both fully God and fully human, he might not have concluded like the original Jesus Questers did; he might have avoided the very limited notion of ‘time’ and ‘space’ that someone who happens to be God in the flesh could be operating with. This is my response: Jesus wasn’t mistaken about his imminent return, instead his vision of time/space and the future is at least as long as Yahweh’s in the Old Testament. Or did Terry forget that Yahweh had been preparing, through his covenant people Israel, for millennia, with Jesus’s first advent in mind. Do you see the analogy I’m drawing? God took thousands of years, when referring to his covenant people, to layer tradition upon tradition, prophecy upon promise, about the first coming of the Son. If Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh is it strange to think that when he spoke of his near and imminent return, that within his economy of things two thousand years, or a million years, are rather short spans of time for the eternal God; the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever? But that’s what Eagleton gets when he presumes that the Jesus he is looking at looks like him staring back at him in the mirror, rather than the living and eternal God.

It is an interesting corollary, the second part of the Eagleton paragraph refers to eternity being now, and only in the horizontal immanence of the concrete present. I mean what is one to do if you reject any hope in the Risen Christ? You might as well attempt to make the best of now, even live your best life now, and write books about the virtues of Marx’s theology for the masses. I’ve seen this turn made by someone else; David Congdon has unfortunately arrived at this same conclusion about eternity. He has bought into the radically existentialized Jesus of Bultmann, and uncoupled concrete history from any sort of antecedent (eternal) reality in the living God. There are many sophisticated ways to live in unbelief (with reference to the living God Revealed in Jesus Christ), and unfortunately Marxist atheists, like Eagleton, or Existentialist theists, like Congdon, have found those ways. Moral: Don’t follow their lead. God’s Not Dead.

 

[1] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 1476, 1483.

The following is a “tweet-storm” that Union Theological Seminary recently posted on Twitter. It is actually prompted as a clarification to another tweet-storm they offered in response to John MacAthur’s Statement on Social Justice and The Gospel. Leaving that issue to the side for the moment, what this tweet-storm reveals, not surprisingly though, is the depths that Union has come to. They have been known since their inception of being a bastion of liberal theology, and so this might seem unremarkable to some. I just wanted to comment a bit on it. So read it in full below, then I will offer a brief comment.

Some people have asked why a Christian seminary would say that Christianity is not the only path to salvation. The short answer is that this in no way violates the Christian faith and, moreover, is integral to honoring and respecting our community. 2. For too long, Christians have misread verses like John 14:6 as implying that God is found exclusively through the Christian faith, many going as far as to say that people of other faiths face eternal damnation. This is an incredibly narrow reading of the text. 3. To box God neatly within the Christian tradition is to reveal a profoundly limited understanding of the divine. Who are we to say that God can’t speak to humanity through a multitude of messengers? 4. “No one comes to God except through me,” is simply Jesus’ prophetic announcement that—to know and enter into relationship with God—emulate Jesus: Embrace folk on the margins, stand against imperial abuses, love one’s neighbor. These aren’t exclusively Christian values. 5. And this isn’t a “good people from other faiths are Christians and just don’t know it” argument, just an admission of Christian humility that the way we’ve come to know and follow God isn’t the only path. Admitting this, however, by no means precludes Christian identity. 6. One can still uphold the Bible’s authority, personally; still believe fervently that Jesus is God-made-flesh; still worship in Christian community; still be a Christian in every meaningful sense, without saying anyone who believes differently is destined for hellfire. 7. Union is by no means disavowing Christianity, only admitting it is not the sole way to know God. And, in doing that, we open the door to genuine interreligious engagement that not only deepens Christian faith, but honors others’ religious experience as equally deep and valid. 8. Union now proudly offers programs in Buddhism & Interreligious Engagement and Islam & Interreligious Engagement. In our classrooms, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian students study side by side—exploring their faith together. 9. This is simply not possible in an institution that believes non-Christian students are destined for damnation. And this dynamic, while particularly acute in an educational setting, is just as true for the world at large. 10. We need faith leaders who can cross religious borders to strive together for God’s justice, not ones who demand everyone believe as they do. The globe is stricken with far too much religious violence: We need to deepen interreligious understanding, not add to this pain. 11. And this begins by letting go of narrow conceptions of salvation that harm others, building walls instead of bridges.[1]

Here is how I responded to it on my twitter feed:

I mean honestly there isn’t much to say other than UTS is apostate. They operate under the mythology of something like John Hick’s pluralistic universalism. They also, as indicated in their twitter-storm only make bald-faced, limp-wristed, snowflake like assertions about the traditional view of salvation being too narrow. So what! Really, what does it matter what they or I think?! Has God spoken clearly with force in and through His living Word or not? Is there ‘no other name given under heaven by which people might be saved’ except Christ’s name, or not? They said reading John 14:6 as presenting an exclusive way to God through Christ alone is too narrow and rigid. Really? How did you come to that conclusion, and who allowed you to crawl into God’s mind and tell the rest of the world, and the church catholic what he ‘really’ meant? Don’t you—the authors of this tweet-thread—see the slippery slope you have slid down? Aren’t you aware, historically, of the ideational antecedents that have led you to the sort of neo-Cartesian/Gnostic theory of authority you are operating from when you presume to speak as God? May God have mercy on your ever-self-loving-souls.

 

[1] Union Theological Seminary, Twitter-Storm, accessed 09-20-2018.

Yesterday I attended the Pacific Northwest Regional Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting, held at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. After the last paper for the day was presented, by a genuine and true blue philosopher genius just PhD’d out of the University of Birmingham in the UK, I was introduced to another guy who is a professor of theology, did his PhD at the University of Edinburgh on Karl Rahner’s Trinitarian theology, and who thinks Barth and Torrance are essentially heretics; so this of course made for some fun discussion/debate (for about an hour and a half or so). I shared a bit of how that discussion unfolded on my Facebook wall, so I thought I would share what I wrote there, here.

According to my flesh and blood interlocutor yesterday Barth rejected a verbal revelation from God. For the life of me I couldn’t, at first, figure out what he was getting at. After a moment I realized that he was asserting that Barth rejects propositional truth; i.e. that Barth fundamentally rejects Holy Scripture as a mode of God’s Self-revelation. This was the primary basis upon which my interlocutor attempted to skewer Barth’s theology in general. Yet, I had to remind him over and again that Barth does not reject “verbal Revelation”, it’s just that he sees God’s Revelation as personally mediated in the eternal Son of God, the Logos; that from this Revelation we have “verbal” Revelation provided for both in Written and Preached form. This was not good enough for my interlocutor.

Further, my interlocutor kept hammering the idea that there was no way for true knowledge of God to be present in Barth’s theology, as corollary to his point in re to lack of “verbal Revelation,” because there was no place for information about God to be gained; i.e. there are no propositional means by which we can know that God is Triune. 1) I responded that the very fact that God comes to us as the Son (in good Athanasian logic) presupposes that the Father is present etc. 2) Once again, I reiterated that for Barth, his theology of the Word is of apiece, and a complex tied into his broader theory of revelation. That the Living Word of God (Jn 1.1) provides the context for the Written Word, and following, the Preached Word, and as such all the information one would need for knowledge of God is present and reporting for duty. It’s just that Revelation, as the broader category for Barth, is grounded in the Triune life of God and graciously Self-given (which is what love is) in the enfleshment of the Son.

My interlocutor was not having it; he was in apologetics mode, and attempting to save my soul I think. 🙂

Engaging in theological discussion on the fly and within the flow of personal conversation is some of the most enjoyable stuff I ever get to engage in (I could do it for hours on end, but rarely get to do that in persona). I thank my interlocutor from Edinburgh and Tacoma, WA for taking the time to provide critical push back I rarely ever get in person. I was actually edified and encouraged by it (even though he told me that he enjoys turning Barth’s theology into a pretzel—and anyone who affirms it—and crushing the pretzel). Pax. 

PS. We discussed much more, the above represents the introductory nub that kicked off much more exchange.

I have often decried the apologetics culture, particularly in North American evangelicalism (which I inhabit). My concern has always been the conflation of apologetics with the doing of Christian Dogmatics and/or what some term as Systematic Theology. Indeed, this conflation has happened, and when it does it needs to be well “decried.” Karl Barth was someone who saw this problem, and so intentionally, and early, avoided apologetics, even, as some would say, to a fault. Barth believed that the best apologetic for the Christian faith was a good Christian Dogmatic.

Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink provide a wonderful sketch of how apologetics have often fallen prey to the temptation of substituting its means for the means of actual Christian Dogmatic development; in their sketch they touch upon Barth, and I would suggest build upon Barth’s reaction to the apologetic culture. They build on it by uppointing the value of allowing good Christian Dogmatics to in and of themselves function as an intentional apologetic; potentially by the sheer force of the compelling vision of God in Christ that they offer to the world as witness. They write:

We want to give a final indication of the lines between various disciplines. Dogmatics is closely linked to apologetics, by which we traditionally mean the defense of the Christian faith against all sorts of criticisms to which it is subjected. This definition has given apologetics a rather defensive connotation—as if the Christian faith is characterized by defensiveness, because it supposedly presents a less-than-solid worldview. In addition, apologists may, at times, be subconsciously inclined to adopt the patterns of thought of those they want to combat. As a result, they may in fact jeopardize the uniqueness of the Christian faith they want to defend.

For this reason, Karl Barth, for example, long held back from any significant involvement with apologetics. He felt there was a major risk that the Christian faith would become caricatured if one were to adopt the models of thought of one’s critics. (He saw how it happened, for instance, to Rudolf Bultmann, whom he considered a kindred spirit.) Barth maintained that it is impossible to reason slowly but surely toward Jesus Christ by using a foreign model of thought, that one who does not begin with Christ will never find him in the end. For this reason, we must, when we want to give an account of our Christian faith to a broad public, simply be very direct and put our cards on the table. In his on dogmatics Barth faithfully followed this procedure by constructing his theology in a totally Christocentric way. We must add, however, that Barth eventually became more appreciative of the apologetic project, more aware of how dogmatics and apologetics do not necessarily exclude each other.

There is ample evidence that the Christian community continues to need a voice with an apologetic orientation. As society becomes increasingly secular, and as the Christian faith is increasingly subjected to a wide range of criticisms, there is a heightened sense that Christians need to know how they can best respond with good arguments when they receive all kinds of reproaches. Rather than elevating apologetics into a separate discipline, however, we think it better to integrate it into dogmatics. This gives it a place in a positive, comprehensive elucidation of the content of the Christian faith, rather than in a discourse with inevitably defensive undertones. Moreover, because of a constant orientation toward the sources of the faith, apologetics will shift less easily to very dissimilar philosophical models. And finally, in its turn, dogmatics will be protected against fuzziness when it has to seriously assume its responsibility of giving an account of the Christian faith to secular and religious forms of criticism. In short, good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature.

When dogmatics fails in performing this task, it will, to its shame, see how non-theologians or “ordinary” pastors and their publications assume greater significance with regard to the apologetic orientation of the church than professional theologians. In this connection, we may be grateful for the work of apologists like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, as well as, more recently, Tim Keller, the leader of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York.[1]

Much to consider here. When they say that “…good dogmatics will, certainly in our culture, have an apologetic nature” it makes me squirm a bit. We will have to wait and see how van der Kooi and van den Brink develop this further; if they do. I do agree that good dogmatics will always have the incidental force of providing a power of God like witness (cf. Rom. 1.16) to the world of the beauty, grandeur, and reality of the Gospel; and I do believe that there indeed is a place for combating for the faith at an intellectual level. But I still turn more the way of Barth, even the early Barth, against doing outright apologetics. We would have to ask what purpose apologetics are serving. Are they for the body of Christ herself; for witness to the world; to make the world look foolish through the foolishness of the Gospel; or a combination of all this and more?

I’m going to have to ponder this further. I was raised and weaned on the evangelical apologetics sub-culture and its attendant material. I have used it over and over again in evangelistic situations, and it has helped in some instances. Usually, though, all it helps me to do is win arguments and jousts. Some of the apologetics material sustained me intellectually at a time when I needed it, but that was before I was aware of historical theology and the riches just waiting to be laid bare in the history of the church of Jesus Christ; i.e. including Christian Dogmatics etc. I am not totally sure what van der Kooi and van den Brink mean by “good dogmatics will … have an apologetic nature.” I can see that in a incidental maybe de facto way, but not in a formal de jure or objective way. What hath apologetics to do with Christian Dogmatics indeed?

 

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017), 21-2.

When philosophers talk about ‘god’ are they referring to the God, or instead a human projection of a no-God? When atheists talk about ‘god’ are they referring to the God, or instead a socio-phenomenal construct of god that they have inherited tacitly from the cultures (largely Western per the assumption of this post) they have grown up in? I would contend that philosophers and coexistatheists who claim to have “discovered” a concept or notion of God, and then utilize that discovery to talk about God in universal and totalizing ways are not in the end talking about, at least, the Christian God. The Christian God is known only through His Self-revelation, there is no other way to come to know the Christian God who is Triune; the Christian God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — this is the stuff of revelation.

But this reality in and of itself does not mitigate the fact that all of humanity in one way or another engages in theological reflection; it is just that Christians are the only ones to do so with reference to the true and living God. It is good to know this though, isn’t it? That all of humanity does theology; that all of humanity because they are created in the image of God, and recreated as images of the image of God in Christ have the propensity to want to live into the reality for which they were created. It is just that without the Spirit people are left to their own devices, which means they are trapped within themselves to only think from themselves, and thus project out of themselves a conception of god that sounds and looks exceedingly like humanity (just elevated). Karl Barth says it this way:

Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as “sciences.” Not only the natural sciences are “sciences.” Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word “theology” seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of “God.”

But many things can be meant by the word “God.” For this reason, there are many kinds of theologies. There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian. There is, moreover, no religion, no philosophy, no world view that is not dedicated to some such divinity. Every world view, even that disclosed in the Swiss and American national anthems, presupposes a divinity interpreted in one way or another and worshiped to some degree, whether wholeheartedly or superficially. There is no philosophy that is not to some extent also theology. Not only does this fact apply to philosophers who desire to affirm — or who, at least, are ready to admit— that divinity, in a positive sense, is the essence of truth and power of some kind of highest principle; but the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be “nature,” creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be “reason,” progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently “godless” theologies are theologies.[1]

I like to remember this when I am conversing with people who claim to be atheists, agnostics, or just plain ole’ garden variety pagans. Because we were created to worship it is a fundamental aspect of human nature to want to worship. Of course given the reality of what Luther and others called homo in se incurvatus, or humanity incurved upon itself, again humans left to themselves will theologize about themselves. Sure they will call their god something or someone else other than themselves, they might even call their god, God, but unless they have the Spirit of God they have no hope or possibility for speaking or referring to the true and the living Triune God.

Next time you are talking to a person who claims to not be religious, or who claims to be an atheist or agnostic just remind them that one way or the other they do theology every day. It might not be the best theology, but it is indeed theology; there is no escaping this reality, it is a fact of human being.

 

[1] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 3-4.

 

Dear Jeff,                                                                                                                                      05-24-2015

You have written this in regard to your view of Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism, and in your view their respective capacities to Bertrand_Russellrespond to human suffering and existential day-to-day reality:

This facile Christianity leads to oppression, intolerance, and hate. At its best, of course, Christianity leads to humility. At their best, so, too, do agnosticism and atheism. If you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to worry about any mistaken belief that God is on your side in all your dealings with other people. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, it can become that much easier to focus on the here and now and become concerned for others’ suffering.[1]

Your reference to ‘facile Christianity’ goes back to an earlier reference that I made in regard to the style of evangelical Christianity that both you and myself grew up with in our shared experience at a private Christian junior high and high school. As we both matured and went our separate ways into the big world we both have similarly seen the problems with this ‘facile Christianity’ you reference and yet our responses to that have been fundamentally different; you an atheist and me an ever more committed and devout Christian and follower of the historical Jesus Christ and Way.

Let me now respond to your claims in turn. And my responses will be necessarily brief in order to cope with the constraints of the (online) medium we are working with, and the reality that if we were going to deal with each of the issues you have brought up in a critical way that we would have to at least write essay length responses in order to do justice to the depth associated with them (the issues).

Let me state right up front that what seems to be the underlying premise of your evaluation of Christianity’s, Atheism’s, and Agnosticism’s respective value has to do with a purely ethical, utilitarian, and consequentialist, if not existentialist outlook. In other words, you have apparently come to the conclusion that what matters is only the here and now; the immediate and observable reality of things and that moral/ethical value can be purely generated from within a closed system of human compassion and generosity toward their fellow man and woman (without appeal to someone ‘outside’ of this closed system typically known as God). But it is at this point that I believe your premise begins to break down; that a purely naturalist based ethic grounded upon natural law of cause and effect cannot furnish you with the kind of ethics and view of human dignity that you seem to believe it can. And so it is for this reason (among others) that I see your position as incoherent and inconsistent. Let me explain.

Jeff, bluntly, you seem to be assuming that there is some sort of universal normative value that should be globally present in just the same ways for the Atheist as is for the Christian; but I wonder why? As an Atheist (or Agnostic, but functional atheist) you believe that you can appeal to something beyond your own subjective and psychological experience? Why do you presume that there is something (of ethical import) that is not just true for you and your experience of the world, but that what you believe constitutes a human capacity to engage with the suffering’s of others should be true in the same way for everyone else (whether they be in the ‘best’ of Christianity, Atheism, or Agnosticism)? If you believe that we live in a closed system (universe), and that reality is determined to be what it is by a clockwork determinism of natural law of cause and effect, then how can you claim with any global force that things aren’t the way they are simply because that is how the universe has decided things should be? Friedrich Nietzsche bit the bullet when he wrote:

The modern scientific counterpart to belief in God is the belief in the universe as an organism: this disgusts me. This is to make what is quite rare and extremely derivative, the organic, which we perceive only on the surface of the earth, into something essential, universal, and eternal! This is still an anthropomorphizing of nature![2]

Why don’t you bite the bullet too? In other words, why do you pretend that you can identify moral values from within a closed system of reality? As a naturalist (which I assume you are given your comments on ‘real science’ in an earlier comment of yours) you cannot escape the way things are, you are captive to natural law, and thus you must conclude that the way things are are the way things ought to be; this is your only alternative for ‘oughtness’ in regard to ethics and human dignity in a world that can be reduced to materialism, chemical reactions in the human brain, and governed by a deterministic mechanical process of cause and effect. Émile Bréhier gets to the conclusion of your premise about things quite well when he writes:

Order in nature is but one rigorously necessary arrangement of its parts, founded on the essence of things; for example, the beautiful regularity of the seasons is not the effect of a divine plan but the result of gravitation.[3]

But if you believe this, if you believe that there is nothing external to us or the universe from whence personal value and human dignity can be derived, then how can you with any consistency make the assertion that Atheism and/or Agnosticism (functional atheism) has the ability to appeal to something that is external to all of humanity and outside of the closed system within which we live and move and have our being as human beings? I would submit that you cannot! It seems as if you want to function as if there is indeed someone external to the universe, in order to get your ethics, but then with your other hand you want to throw God away. This is petitio principi though, Jeff, or to think in a circle. You cannot claim a universal normative ethic for all of humanity and at the same time repudiate belief in a personal God who transcends the contingent universe (it is as if you want to have my cake, and eat it too).

Let me close this part of my response to you Jeff by referring to a theologian, and historian of ideas David Bentley Hart; he brings all that I have sketched above home, especially in regard to your claim that based upon your metaphysical materialism and/or naturalism that you can hold with any consistency that you as an Atheist (or Agnostic) have the resources that you think you do based upon the premises that you operate from (as a non-theist, and more pointedly, functional Atheist). He writes (at length):

What, however, we should never forget is where those larger notions of the moral good, to which even atheists can feel a devotion, come from, and this is no small matter. Compassion, pity, and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never risen at all. Many societies have endured and indeed flourished quite well without them. It is laudable that Dennett is disposed (as I assume he is) to hate economic, civil, or judicial injustice, and that he believes we should not abandon our fellow human beings to poverty, tyranny, exploitation, or despair. Good manners, however, should oblige him and others like him to acknowledge that they are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises: the ideals of justice for the oppressed the church took from Judaism, Christianity’s own special language of charity, its doctrine of God’s universal love, its exaltation of forgiveness over condemnation, and so on. And good sense should prompt them to acknowledge that absolutely nothing ensures that, once Christian beliefs have been finally and fully renounced, those values will not slowly dissolve, to be replaced by others that are coarser, colder, more pragmatic, and more “inhuman.” On this score, it would be foolish to feel especially sanguine; and there are good causes, as I shall discuss in the final part of this book, for apprehension. This one reason why the historical insight and intellectual honesty of Nietzsche were such precious things, and why their absence from so much contemporary antireligious polemic renders it so depressingly vapid.[4]

To the point then, Jeff. You want to claim something you cannot, at least not with consistency. You want to claim that you as an Atheist not only have the moral resources to respond to human suffering, but that you have a better intellectual platform from which to do that; better than the Christian theist does, who makes appeal to God. But as we have already glanced, you really cannot given the type of closed universe you live in; and you really cannot, least not with consistency, because the moral conventions you want to appeal to (not just linguistically or grammatically, but also metaphysically and conceptually at a material level) are inherited by you through the history of ideas most pointedly from the Christians (and the robust intellectual history I have pointed you to, and to which Hart refers and is representative of himself).

Jeff, this will only be part one, of at least two more parts in response to your claims about the equality of Atheism/Agnosticism with Christianity. Interestingly (at least from my perspective) I have taken a tact with you that I normally wouldn’t; I have appealed to some classical type of argumentation against your assertions. In my next responses to you I will shift gears a bit and offer a Christian alternative to things, especially in response to your claims about being able to respond to suffering in the ‘here-and-now’, and how you claim that the non-Christian atheist can respond better than the Christian. I will hopefully demonstrate why that simply cannot be the case; Hart’s quote should help you to understand one reason why that is. And the reductio ad absurdum that I tried to present in this response hopefully has also started to highlight why you cannot with any consistency make the claim that a naturalistic-Atheism has the capacity to respond to things ‘ethical’ in the same way, and in a better way than Christianity can; but I will develop this further in my next response.

Sincerely,

Bobby Grow

[1] Jeff, Facebook Thread accessed 05-24-2015.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Wikiquote http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche accessed 05-24-2015.

[3] Émile Bréhier, The History of Philosophy, trans. Wade Baskin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 5:129.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 16.

Is there a place for Christian apologetics? I grew up (and still largely culturewarsinhabit) in the North American evangelical sub-culture where J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, along with the fellows of the Discovery Institute and Intelligent Design are common fare. I grew up where a whole hermeneutic developed out of an apologetic against the perceived threat of ‘Liberal’ higher criticism; a hermeneutic based upon positivism and empiricism (where biblical prophecy and its fulfillment become somewhat determinative towards proving the veracity of Scripture, etc.) – and of course there are more sophisticated developments, but still, along positivist lines, at least in response to the perceived threat of Enlightenment, rationalist higher criticism. So because of this I grew up in a Christian sub-culture that is always on the defense; always on the defense for God, as if God needs to be defended. But is this what God needs? And is this the best way to approach these types of macro-concerns, as if God needs us to be him (of our choosing, not his), to be who he is for us?

Swiss theologian Karl Barth doesn’t think so, and I have come to heartily agree with Barth on this issue. It isn’t a matter of being anti-intellectual; just the opposite! It is a matter of thinking ‘after God has spoken’ and as if he has before we start trying to speak for or about him. Barth grew up right in the heart of the development of so called ‘Liberal’ theology in World War I German theology; and his response (when he repented!) to ‘Liberal’ theology wasn’t to try and deconstruct it based upon its terms, but instead to turn to God and allow him to set his terms as the means and categories through which Barth was going to attempt to do his theological thinking and preaching. Barth writes:

In detail, of course, dogmatic thinking will everywhere be made up of partly historical, partly psychological, and partly philosophical elements. But if things are to be done aright we must never for a moment let these elements, the stocheia tou kosmou [Col. 2:8], become independent or a presupposition. In dogmatics we cannot for a moment think seriously in historical, psychological, or philosophical terms. We cannot fail to make Deus dixit the presupposition, or do so only questioningly or partially, trying to think our way up to God had not spoken, as though God were a problem and not the ground of all problems and also, whether we have eyes to see it or not, the solution to all problems. From the roots up dogmatic thinking is either kata ton Christon [Col. 2:8] or it is not dogmatic, theological thinking. Let us be on guard not against criticism or doubt or skepticism — these are not the enemies — but instead against apologetics, against trying to get at the matter by detours, as though God could be known without God, as though he could be the second thing, as though he were not already quite unambiguously the first.[1]

I would seriously submit that evangelical Christianity in North America is dying right before our very eyes for the reason that Barth identifies; even if Barth is talking about his attempt to do Christian Dogmatics (Systematic Theology) in a German theologically liberal context. Indeed; exactly. North American Evangelicalism continues on in the Fundamentalist heritage of its recent past; which means that it does theology and lives Christianly from the same pietistic inward turned individualistic premises that so called German theological liberalism lived from (or close enough).

The antidote to this is to REPENT! We need to turn to God, and think from Deus dixit (i.e. ‘God has spoken’) as the premise of our Christian lives. We don’t need to be apologetic about being ‘in Christ’. God is God. He works from what is perceived as weakness and foolishness (in the world); we don’t need to assert ourselves in order to think Christianly. It is okay to be laughed at when the one you are talking about, talking to, and proclaiming holds all of reality together by the Word of his power; remember Deus dixit (‘God has spoken’)!

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion. Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 289.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I fight feelings of emptiness and nihilism when it comes to doing theology; and yet at the same rickwarrentime it has become the love of my life, because it is where intimacy with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ reposes most! But there are a million distractions, and things of life that would like to squeeze out any possibility of spending thoughtful, intentional, and dare I say, heart-shaped intellectual time with God in Christ.

There are many reasons why this sense of futility or emptiness might set in, and in particularly acute ways for evangelical Protestant Christian thinkers. Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

1) There is no value placed upon deep theological thought within the environs of modern day Protestant evangelicalism.

2) Theology, at points, just seems all too academic with no apparent touch points with “real” life, and “real” people.

3) If you think too deeply you almost become outcast, and are accused of focusing on things that don’t really matter; what really matters, in contrast, and ostensibly, is that we have some sort of warm hearted felt experience with God, and this somehow abstracted from any deep and rigorous thought about what that looks like.

4) Related to the above: There is often a false dilemma created by evangelicals; either, as it goes, the thinker must be involved in real life daily stuff that matters, or be relegated to the dead halls of the Christian thinkers where everything remains abstract and aloof from the apparently concrete lived experiences (which are the standard for determining genuine spirituality, apparently) of what it means to truly live a simple, heart warmed Christian experience.

5) Thinking theologically and deeply that way, apparently, takes too much time to develop; what counts towards being a real life evangelical Christian is that we make more immediate real life connections with real people; and as a result we mystically connect and grow in fellowship with God and others, albeit devoid of any intention or rigorous theological thought.

These are some reasons that might contribute to the seeming futility of doing theology as an evangelical. Underneath the resistance to this there seems to be a kind of nihilistic attitude towards Christian thinkers who are wired to think deeply; and in place of such modes, the “Christian experience” becomes the standard of what it means to be truly Christian and thriving. In other words, feeling good and happy about oneself seems to be the King. Desiring to live as a Christian thinker in such an environment contributes to this kind of battle and sense of emptiness that often can hit an evangelical thinker. There is no value placed upon such platitudes, and in fact such platitudes get relegated to the realm of “hobbyhorse” with no real meaning for what it means to be a healthy vibrant thriving Christian person. Beyond that, unless an evangelical thinker gets a PhD in theology or something, and is able to secure employment in a seminary or bible college (the only sanctioned places among evangelicals where rigorous intellectual activity is sanctioned and acceptable), there really is no value (like towards employment) for such people in the evangelical church–they are usually lauded as novelties in the church, and known for being a very smart person who traffics in things too elevated for what really counts toward being a vibrant thriving evangelical Christian person. What a shame.

________________

*The picture of Rick Warren is somewhat ad hoc; I just found it when searching google image, and it seemed fitting as typifying a kind of evangelical posture I was bemoaning in this post (especially the banner behind Warren).

John Shore, apparently uber-Progressive Christian blogger (never heard of him before, until just now), just wrote a post over at his Patheos blog (on the Progressive Christian channel) about God and hell. After lacing some suggestions together about why Shore believes that belief in the Christian God of love and hell (as eternal conscious torment) are incompatible he summarizes (and somewhat concludes) this:

To which I call bullshit.

You don’t get to claim that humans are made in the very image of God, and at the same time claim that God’s morality is completely different from human morality.

You see John needs this premise (above) in order to make the suggestions/assertions (instead of arguments) that he does about God and hell. He needs a way to set Scripture aside, this way he is able to simply appeal to human rationality and ‘reason’ (as he defines it). But all I can say in response to John’s “call” is so what? Who cares what John Shore or anyone else thinks about hell and God.

Just because there “might” be an internal coherence to someone’s logic, does not make that logic universally binding and absolute; not in the way John thinks it does! John smuggles things into his syllogism, into the premises that fund his conclusions about God, humans and morality. He smuggles in the idea that the image of God and how that gets cashed out is more straightforward than it is; and I think just focusing on this one smuggle by John undercuts everything else he has been suggesting about God, hell, morality and humans. John needs to flesh out what he means by image of God; where he gets what he means by image of God; and why he thinks that what he thinks about the image of God justifies his conclusions about God, hell, humans, and morality. John needs to deal with the concept of the image of God, itself a REVEALED category (something we find in the Bible, and in the Bible’s reality in Jesus Christ), and explain how the Bible itself supports his apparent belief that the image of God allows him to conclude what he does about God, humans, hell, and morality. John needs to talk about the noetic effects of sin upon people created in the image of God, and what impact that has upon our capacities to ‘reason’ about the things of God; i.e. as if there is a univocal relationship between our ‘fallen reasoning’ and how God then must apparently act in correlation with our ‘fallen unaided naked reason’.

John’s suggestions about God, hell, morality, and humans lives on a procrustean bed; and so it is only fair to say back to John: who cares what you think about God, hell, humans, and morality? Really all that matters is what God in Jesus Christ thinks about it. If you can’t make your argument from there, then, John, you have no argument to make. If you can’t get past basic anthropological problems (as I have alluded to above), John, then all you really have is an appeal to the people; which you know is no argument at all.

PS. It is possible to have a reasonable, theological, biblical discussion about Christian universalism, etc., but John has not come close to providing that. He needs to overcome much before he is able to do that.

Welcome

Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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