Thursday, February 02, 2012

Me and Pascal, together again

My close personal friend,
Blaise Pascal
John Loftus posted a blog yesterday accusing me (and Pascal!) of "empty rhetoric."  I am, of course, flattered at the company, and hope the great scientist is not rolling over in his grave right now.

 This is an "accusation" I feel compelled to respond to, if for no other reason, to drive the comparison between myself and Blaise Pascal home, for all those people in Junior High School who doubted I'd ever amount to much. :- )

Seriously, John's accusations come at a propitious time: I've just sent in my rebuttal of John's Outsider Test for Faith, as a chapter to an e-book on the subject of Faith and Reason, being put together by a nice fellow from Campus Crusade, and due to come out in two or three months, I believe.  In that chapter, I intend to show not only that the OTF does not harm Christianity, but actually supports it, in four important ways.

Here's my preliminary answer to John's jabs in this post:

JL: "Christian apologists will write peer reviewed articles defending Pascal's Wager. Given Pascal's premises his argument basically works. In order to see how it works you have to grant that reason cannot decide between two options. The two options for Pascal were non-belief and a Catholicism where nonbelievers risk an eternal punishment in hell for their nonbelief. Given these two options it would be better to believe . . . "

"The reason I bring this additional deceptive strategy up is because Christian apologist David Marshall continues to spout off that there is one God who can be seen in every religion. I had asked him
who answers prayers? His response: 'Who answers prayer? God, of course. That's "Bog" in Russian, "Dieu" in French, "Shang Di" in Chinese (also other names), and "Allah" in Arabic.'  Now if you read the link I provided he did not attempt to answer the difficulties inherent in saying this. He responded with rhetoric, empty rhetoric, that is utterly lacking in substance."

Let's start with Pascal. Why is it that every skeptic on the planet seems to have read "Pascal's Wager," but none of them has read the rest of the book? 
Loftus also mentions
William James.  Not a
BAD fellow, mind you.
Pascal, 'empty rhetoric lacking in substance?'  Who are you trying to fool? You might say that about Camus, or Marx, or Freud, but not about Pascal.  Pascal has already explained why Christianity ought, intellectually, to be a live option for any serious reader of his book, by giving a variety of evidences that it is true.  His Wager is frosting on the cake.  (Or, I would prefer to think, whipped cream, Japanese style.) 

And if you've really read my books, as you seem to indicate, you should know better that to imply that they are 'lacking in substance,' either.  My arguments may be right or wrong, but they are certainly substantive. 

And no I don't claim (still less "spout") that 'there is one God who can be seen in every religion.

You need to begin by getting the argument you're critiquing right.   My claim is not about religions at all. It is that God is known by many names in many cultures . . . (this) is accepted by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Chinese, Africans, Native Americans, common folks, and scholars alike, so I'm not sure why you make it sound as if I'm saying something new, here.   

It's not that God can be seen IN all religions, but that God is recognized as transcending particular traditions BY many people in many different religions.  A useful analogy might be the difference between, "People from every country have gone to the moon," and "The moon is perceived, though sometimes hazily or in part, from many nations around the world." 

JL: "As an evangelical Marshall does not think God through Allah authorized Mohammad to be his prophet, for Marshall would say God's prophetic word through Mohammad contains obvious errors.  God through Mohammad wants Muslims to kill Jews while the God of the Old Testament called Jews his chosen ones and granted them Palestine as an eternal possession. God through Mohammad said Jesus did not die on the cross while God in the New Testament said he died and that he arose from the dead."

Of course people disagree about what God has done or said!   Some Christians think God created the world instantly, 6000 years ago, others slowly, intervening in the biological process, others entirely through evolution. It hardly follows that they worship 'different Gods,' even if their understanding of him differs.   (As does our understanding of other human beings -- I know you differently than William Lane Craig knows you, differently than your wife or accountant or customers for your business know you.  But there's still just one you!)

JL: "He is not a pluralist like John Hick, you see. He wants to appear to be a rational level-headed believer and this means making these kinds of rhetorically empty statements.  The reality is that Marshall is an evangelical standing in the tradition of evangelicalism.  As a world traveler he instinctively knows evangelicalism is dead in the water, so he resorts to using empty rhetoric to appear reasonable, or at least, that's what it looks like to me."

Speaking of empty rhetoric . . .

As a world traveler I know that conservative Christianity has never thrived as widely as it does today. That will come up in my response to the OTF, too.

I just presented a seminar yesterday largely rebutting Hick, in a room full of serious Christian thinkers from Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, and Latin America. They represent often thriving churches, in some cases churches that are quite young.  None of them agree with Hick (I asked), apart maybe, to some extent, the facilitator of the seminar, a philosopher who (as it happens) studied under Hick.

So much for dead in the water.

As to whether I "want to appear to be a rational, level-headed believer," honestly its not my first priority.   Being rational is higher on the list than appearing one, and that list also includes such things as, "David Marshall wants to go sliding on frozen backwaters of the Thames if it gets colder as forecast over the next few days, then maybe take pictures of the spires in the snow from Christ Church meadow on Sunday."

What people on John's blog think of me, is (with all due respect) a somewhat lower priority. 

"Marshall claims that God is Allah is Yahweh is ______ (fill in the deity of your choice) and that this represents the best of the deities believed by the world religions. But he lands squarely in the evangelical camp. What then becomes of his claim that God is Allah is Yahweh is ______ (fill in the deity of your choice)? Nothing of substance at all!"

I honestly don't know what to make of this.  God is one.  He has names in many languages, and had those names before missionaries showed up.  The locals often recognized that missionaries were talking about the same God they had known of, from time out of mind.  This fact, that "God showed up" around the world, undermines the OTF something fierce, as I intend to show, in my upcoming chapter.  But it certainly doesn't follow that all conceptions of God are exactly the same.  Why this should trouble me, or anyone else, as a Christian, when I find Paul recognizing the same thing in Athens already, I don't know.  But perhaps, John, when you read the full explanation of why the OTF supports the Gospel of Jesus, you'll see the light and finally remember to give Shang Di the glory.


Brian Barrington said...

I had not heard of John hick, but, according to wikipedia, he rejects 'Christian exclusivism, which holds that although other religions might contain partial goodness and truth, salvation is provided only in Jesus Christ, and the complete truth of God is contained only in Christianity". 

Surely hick's rejection of Christian exclusivism is entirely sensible?

Hick also 'cites the Sermon on the Mount as being the basic Christian teaching'. Nothing to object to here, either, I would think.

Regarding christology, Hick's argues "that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not teach or apparently believe that he was God, or God the Son, Second Person of a Holy Trinity, incarnate, or the son of God in a unique sense."

Given the text of the gospels, that is a plausible position for hick to take - very possibly the most plausible position.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: You will probably like Hick. Maybe his most lively book is A Christian Theology of Religions. Just how "Christian" it is, is open to dispute, but it's an enjoyable read.

I reject exclusivism, too, but not necessarily by that definition -- which is not a very goodd one, I think. The word "exclusive" would seem to imply that truth is exclusively Christian, or that Christians find no truth in other religions, but in practice most exclusivists do.

Hick argues for a particular alternative called pluralism. He doesn't really believe in God -- God, the Tao, Sunyata, Brahman, are all manifestations of the nouminous "Real," which is beyond good and evil or other definable qualities.

I disagree with Hick on many fronts. I think God is personal, good, etc. . . I think his attempt to be fair to all religions is both incoherent and a failure. The concept of God joins more people than The Real ever will. Plus, Hick is required to claim the Real is neither good nor evil, yet keeps on trying to smuggle goodness back in.

I also disagree with Hick about Jesus and salvation history, but those are big subjects, and not the focus of those of his works that I've read.

But I imagine you'll find lots to resonate with, in his writing, since his basic thesis about religions seems pretty close to your own.

Brian Barrington said...

Yes, from the sound of it there would be much agreement between myself and Hick – my view of God is described best by the Sufi poet Attar:

“Yet what are seas and what is air? For all
Is God, and but a talisman are heaven and earth
To veil Divinity. For heaven and earth,
Did He not permeate them, were but names;
Know then, that both this visible world and that
Which unseen is, alike are God Himself,
Naught is, save God: and all that is, is God.”

From this perspective, I actually do believe in the existence of God. Not only do I believe in God, I KNOW with absolute certainty that God exists. Although this God may not be personal or good - at least not in the traditional sense – here , you have pinpointed what may be the key difference between you and Hick\myself - but …

… the supreme goal of all religion is salvation, which means to know God and to become one with God. In my view, salvation is a coherent and rational goal. To become one with God means to annihilate the ego, and overcome the 'self', to abandon selfishness, to overcome the illusion of one's separation from God and from other humans, and thereby unify oneself with God and other humans, and attain a state of sinlessness, blessedness, and wisdom. In other words, salvation requires you to love God with all your heart and with all your soul - and, as a key corollary of that, to love your neighbour as yourself, with all your heart and with all your soul. A person who does this (who sacrifices his self in order to attain unity with God) knows the truth, has attained Enlightenment, and is sinless - such a person walks the Way i.e. walks the path of truth and goodness and righteousness, and has attained a state of blessedness. If this is so it follows that God IS good, and that loving God is good. Also, God is your friend in the sense that by knowing God and becoming one with God, you attain salvation.

Now, whoever completely attains this state of complete union with God can properly be called divine, since they are unified with God. But such complete union probably never happens. But here, in my view, one can make a plausible case for the divinity of Jesus. To the extent that Jesus completely attained the state of Enlightenment and sinlessness outlined above, he can coherently and properly be considered divine- and to the extent that he attained this state of divinity more completely than anyone else ever has, he can even be considered uniquely divine. Jesus is the Tao …

This is why even Spinoza (who also basically agrees with Hick’s conception of God) said of Jesus, "I do not think it necessary for salvation to know Christ according to the flesh: but with regard to the Eternal Son of God, that is the Eternal Wisdom of God, which has manifested itself in all things and especially in the human mind, and above all in Christ Jesus, the case is far otherwise. For without this no one can come to a state of blessedness, inasmuch as it alone teaches, what is true or false, good or evil. And, inasmuch as this wisdom was made especially manifest through Jesus Christ, as I have said, His disciples preached it, in so far as it was revealed to them through Him, and thus showed that they could rejoice in that spirit of Christ more than the rest of mankind. The doctrines added by certain churches, such as that God took upon Himself human nature, I have expressly said that I do not understand; in fact, to speak the truth, they seem to me no less absurd than would a statement, that a circle had taken upon itself the nature of a square."


Of course, it is perfectly possible that my views of God are wrong and that a personal, good God does exist in the traditional sense. After all, what do I know? And given the likelihood that nobody seems to know for sure, I wonder would it be possible to have an organised, insitutional religion\philosophy where BOTH views are permitted and considered legitimate?

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I am glad my wife and I are separate entities: it makes love much more interesting. So I'd just as soon keep that illusion, thank you very much. Same with God.

I don't know what you mean by "legitimate." If theism is false, is it still "legitimate?" Perhaps if you think it is, then pantheism might also be "legitimate" in the same sense on the truth of theism.

The thing is, miracles really do seem to happen, sometimes. This rules out materialism for me.

Brian Barrington said...

You say, “I am glad my wife and I are separate entities: it makes love much more interesting. So I'd just as soon keep that illusion, thank you very much. Same with God.”

Fair enough, although many would say that complete love and friendship between two humans involves total unity in which the self is annhiliated (i.e. "one soul in two bodies").

When in a trance Mansur al-Hallaj, (the Sufi mystic 858AD – 922AD), would utter the phrase "I am the Truth." Some people who heard him took this to mean that he was claiming to be God, since “the Truth” is one of the ninety nine Muslim names of God. His utterances led to a trial, and he was imprisoned in Baghdad for eleven years. When he was released he would not relent, but kept on saying, “I am the Truth”. Then he was publicly executed for blasphemy.

As he was being executed, he kept repeating "I am the Truth". They cut off his arms, legs, tongue and finally his head. But he was smiling, even as they chopped off his head.

Rumi, the great poet, defended al-Hallaj’s statement by saying, “People do not know what is signified by the words ‘I am God.’ People imagine that it is a presumptuous claim, whereas it is really a presumptuous claim to say ‘I am the slave of God’. ‘I am God’ is an expression of great humility. The man who says, ‘I am the servant of God’ affirms two existences, his own and God's, but he that says ‘I am God’ has made himself non-existent and has given himself up. When he says ‘I am God’ he is saying ‘I am naught, God is all; there is no being but God's being’. This is the extreme of humility and self-abasement.”

You say, “I don't know what you mean by legitimate. If theism is false, is it still legitimate? Perhaps if you think it is, then pantheism might also be legitimate in the same sense on the truth of theism”.

I suppose, the question is can it be considered legitimate for two people in the same religious institution\organisation to hold either of these views? Obviously only one of the views can be true, and they cannot both be true. But I would be inclined to say that people do not know with much certainty which (if either) is true, and which is false, even if they have their own view concerning which they regard as more likely.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Typical academic philosopher. Won't explain himself clearly at the price of his own limbs.

I think "legitimacy" might depend on the nature of the institution. If I had a university, I'd gladly invite John Hick to teach on staff, in the philosophy department. If I had a church, I wouldn't invite him to be a Sunday School teacher. But I'd be happy if he showed up in my class, pugnatious and opinionated as like, so long as he expressed himself with propriety.

Brian Barrington said...

I would say churches have something to learn from universities, and universities something to learn from churches. Maybe churches should be a bit more like universities, and universities a bit more like churches? I would like there to be a temple where one can discuss theological matters freely, where scepticism is encouraged rather than frowned upon, and where diverse views about the nature of the Divine are tolerated and even welcomed. And I would like there to be a university where one could give thanks, pray, sing, get married, name one’s children and be buried - a place devoted not just to narrow academic specialities, technical expertise and dry scholarship, but to the whole human being. In the end, these two would be the same building.

What exactly is the distinction between religion and philosophy? Are Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism primarily philosophies or religions? It’s hard to say. Are the Upanishads chiefly a religious text or a philosophical text? Was Buddha primarily a philosopher or a religious figure? Again, it is difficult to say. What about Confucius and Laozi in the Chinese tradition? Again, it is very difficult to say, and many people cannot even decide whether Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy. Taoism seems to distinguish between its “philosophical” side for one type of person, and its more “religious”, ceremonial side for another type of person. But both are welcome to call themselves “Taoists”.

In fact, the rigid distinction between religion on the one hand, and philosophy\humanism\science\scepticism etc. on the other (i.e. between the church and the university, between theology and philosophy) could be said to be a specifically Western invention. This separation has its advantages but there may also be disadvantages – it leads to fragmented societies and maybe even to fragmented souls.

As that great American Benjamin Franklin instructed us: “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”. And everyone in the West sees Jesus as primarily a prophet and religious figure, and Socrates as primarily a philosopher. But then, if one alters one’s perspective slightly, one can also see Jesus as something of a philosopher and Socrates as something of a prophet.

As Buddha said, “In the sky, there is no distinction between East and West; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.”