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Friday, February 17, 2017

Why Jesus, not Sai Baba?

Image result for sai babaJosh Parikh brings my attention to an article by someone calling himself "Counter Apologist."  His basic questions are simple and straightforward: "Even if God, why Jesus?  After all, didn't Sai Baba do miracles far more recently than Jesus, with eyewitnesses you can still query?"   The article is not particularly forceful: at times it reads more like a question than a statement or a very strident challenge. 

Which is great: answering a serious question that has been asked in a serious tone will provide a nice change of pace.  


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CA: "Are there rational justifications for belief in a specific religion?

"I’ve had this idea percolating in my head for some time, and a Twitter interaction with Randal Rauser has forced me to finally put words down in support of it.


"My thoughts are fairly ambitious as far as Counter Apologetics goes, though I’m not yet certain the argument will work.  So consider this a request for rebuttals."

You're asking for rebuttals?  Cool! 

CA: "The idea is that jumping from mere theism to belief in a specific religion is not rationally justifiable. This concept isn’t necessarily new.  

"Even if someone is a classical theist, I’m not sure that they can rationally make the jump from a mere theism to belief in a specific religion, like say Christianity. This would entail belief in a whole subset of contingent facts about god and how that god reveals themselves to humanity: 
  • God is a Trinity
  • Jesus is the “Son” in that Trinity, being fully man and fully god.
  • While in human form, Jesus performed miracles and was resurrected from the dead.
  • The Christian Bible’s claims about god’s divine commands to humanity are accurate.
These doctrines are a mixed bag.  The first two are theological, while the third is historical and may serve as evidence for the first two.  The final item is a little vague -- most Christians don't suppose every command in the Old Testament was meant for all of us, for instance. 

If Jesus did rise from the dead and do miracles, that might be enough by itself to warrant at least a minimal Christianity, focused on Jesus' life, death and resurrection -- the sort of message Paul traveled around the Mediterranean world preaching, as recorded by St. Luke in Acts of the Apostles.  But I see no mention here of who Jesus was, or is -- his character and teachings. I think those need to be part of the package.   
CA: "The question I have is What rational basis does a Christian have for moving from theism to belief in these specific doctrines?'

"Typically, the argument to go from theism to belief in a specific religion revolves around an argument to believe in certain historical miracle claims. For Christianity this is the argument for the resurrection of Jesus – the central belief of Christianity."

We're mostly on the same page so far.  But I'd include the entire raw data of the gospels and the New Testament, as among the premises for "going from theism to Christianity."  And also the raw data of world religions and the nature of man and, while we're at it, of the whole universe. 



CA: "I’m thinking that this kind of argument is not only unsuccessful, but is utterly unsupportable as a general argument given the facts that we have about the world. 

"This is because the argument for the resurrection is an argument for belief in a historical miracle, which is belief in a miracle where the only evidence we have is that of testimony. 

Mostly true.  Here are some other facts for which the "only evidence I have" is testimony:


* Human beings have sent space-craft to Mars.

* Iraq exists.
* German soldiers invaded the Soviet Union in 1940. 
* I possess a liver. 
* I was born in Seattle in 1961.
* The man and woman with whom I lived for my first decades are my parents. 
* I presently live in Washington State, but have also lived in China. 

So I'm thinking that the bare fact that a given belief depends on human testimony does not in any way imply that the belief is unwarranted.  Otherwise, not only history, but even science, are completely screwed.  Along with gossip, what I learned in school, everything in books and on the Internet, even street signs and maps.  


Almost everything we know depends on human testimony . 

CA: "But why believe in the resurrection of Jesus when we have other eye witness testimonies of other miracles.  Sathya Sai Baba is a contemporary example of a mystical figure who died this past decade where we can still find living people who claim to have witnessed his miracles.  This is to say nothing of other miracle or supernatural claims of a host of other world religions, the truth of which would contradict the exclusivist claims of most other world religions."


This is a very common argument, so common that we often fail to recognize how odd it is, in several ways.  


Consider an analogy:

"George claims that he has the basketball.  But that can't be true, because Ralph also claims that he has the basketball.  Therefore it is unlikely there is any basketball." 

This "argument" assumes that there must be only one basketball, in other words that real miracles can only occur in one tradition at a time.  But who said that?  When did God ever say, "I promise never to heal a Buddhist or a Shinto without your permission?"  God can heal anyone he wishes to heal -- that comes with the job. 

The "argument" also seems to assume, very strangely, that the more testimony we have for a given class of events, the less likely it is to be true.  One would think, on the contrary, that if millions of people in thousands of distinct cultures all reported miracles, by Bayes' Theorem, materialism would be vanishingly unlikely to be true.  (And maybe CA is beginning to think that, judging by some of his comments in this article.)

But Sai Baba is a particular unfortunate analogy to choose.  

Sai Baba was one of the cases I studied for my Jesus and the Religions of Man, which was published seventeen years ago.  (His character is also described in books like Spiritual Tourist, Avatar of Night, and The World of the Gurus.)  Sai Baba was no Jesus Christ, more a Jim Jones or a Rasputin type.  He was seedy, perverse, manipulative, offered no great and original teachings that I know of, and merely copied the good works that Christian missions had long since introduced to India.  I argued that whatever Sai Baba was doing, it was emphatically not the same sort of thing that Jesus did in the gospels.  Call it magic, call it hocus-pocus, call it something more sinister, but if you fail to distinguish between Sai Baba's acts and those of Jesus, you are missing the most obvious and important things about the two men.  

I say that not because I see Sai Baba as a "competitor" to the Gospel.  He is not.  I'm perfectly willing to recognize goodness, even greatness, even a calling from God, in religious leaders outside the Christian tradition, where it occurs.  

But Jesus was the greatest of human beings, whether you read him for yourself, or go by what great non-Christian thinkers like Gandhi, Tolstoy, Jefferson, and the Indian reformers thought.  

And Sai Baba was, frankly, a creep.  

Which (third point) also has to do with the nature of their "miracles."  

I obtained my MA studying Chinese gurus a bit like Sai Baba, who also displayed supernatural signs.  But they were not at all like the miracles in the gospels.  In fact, the couple who introduced me to Lu Shengyan, on whom I did anthropology research, had quit that sect not because it did no miracles, but because they had come to believe bad spirits were involved, and that their friend the guru was getting into some nasty stuff.  They then became Christians.  And in my research, I did indeed find that the nature of the "signs" in the True Buddha Movement, and in the Tai Ping Movement, were quite different from those in the gospels.  

In fact, miracles were seldom ascribed to the truly great religious thinkers and reformers, like Confucius, Lao Zi, or I think even Gandhi, in early accounts.  Not only the nature of the gospel miracles, but their very fact, are pretty unusual.  (Nor has anyone found any real parallels in the ancient world, I argue in Jesus is No Myth.)

Fourth and finally, note the word "exclusivist" here.  This work marks CA's comments as theologically naive.  He or she doesn't seem to realize that exclusivism is only one way that Christian relate their faith to other religions, and maybe not the most orthodox choice.  Three possibilities are widely discussed: Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism.   In my doctoral dissertation, I argued that all three had fatal flaws and internal contradictions, and argued for a fourth model of religious traditions which is both more biblical and more intellectually powerful, which I call Fulfillment Theology.

So we've only gone a few yards into the forest, but already completely lost the track.  Counter-Apologist seems to be operating on some very questionable assumptions about how Christianity sees other religious traditions -- assumption which, to be fair, are encouraged in many Christian churches, so it is likely he came by them honestly.  

Counter-Apologist then turns his attention to the important subject of how we might verify miracles, and begins better: 


CA: "This kind of historical method objection to establishing rational belief in a specific miracle isn’t really new, but it’s not an a-priori objection to belief in miracles in principle.  After all, given the historical method, belief in historical miracles could well be justified if we had a wealth of contemporary evidence for verifiable (to the extent that anything is verifiable) miracles."

True.  One word: Keener. 

CA: "Before I continue I should lay out what exactly would be the difference between “verifiable miracles” as opposed to “unverifiable miracles”. 

"Unverifiable miracles are a cheap kind of miracle. Something along the lines of being in a tough but mundane situation, and then having something improbable happen to get you out of that situation after you’ve prayed for deliverance.  The problem with this kind of miracle is that it’s indistinguishable from such a mundane event happening anyway, and it also happens to be commonly reported among believers of mutually exclusive religions like Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, and Hinduism.  After all, if the same kinds of unverifiable miracle stories could be used to justify belief in a host of world religions, it can’t suffice to establish belief in one specific religion over the others."

That would depend on the specific events, and the probabilities involved.  One can't sweep the whole class out the door a priori.  But I agree that we need strong evidence to decide among religions as well as against atheism -- though miracles might be only one part of that evidence.  

For instance, knowing that Joseph Smith was (like Sai Baba) a creep and a liar, and that the Book of Mormon is a fantasy disproved by anthropology as well as genetics (and common sense), even very strong evidence for Mormon miracles (which I have never seen) probably wouldn't budge me an inch towards faith in Smith's divine calling.    

On the other hand, if there were strong evidence that, say, Confucius did miracles, I would be very open to the possibility that God has called him as a prophet for China.  (Though I don't think there is any such evidence.)   I think he was a good man, a theist, and someone who has impacted China mostly for the good.  But if Confucius had done miracles, I wouldn't see that as a threat to Christianity, because I don't think the message he taught is in fundamental conflict with the Christian faith.    

CA: "These kinds of miracles are also quite a far cry from the kinds of miracles we read about in holy books, particularly the bible.  We have reports of god sending fire from the sky to incinerate drenched offerings and altars.  We get plagues, resurrection of the dead, walking on water, immediate healing of permanent disabilities (lame walking, the blind seeing), etc."

But we also get the more "mundane" sorts of probabilistic miracles in the gospels as well -- Jesus sending a disciple to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth, telling the disciples where to catch fish, foretelling events that one might guess, such as his death.    


CA: "Another facet of biblical miracles was that they continued to happen.  Jesus and his disciples weren’t a “one and done” type deal when it came to working miracles. These things continued to happen and were witnessed by contemporaries, often multiple times by the same people."

And yet the gospels also record the surprise with which Jesus' contemporaries greeted Jesus' miracles.  "No one has ever healed a man born blind!"  "If this man were not from God, he could not do these things."  "The disciples were sorely afraid."


So even at the time, Jesus' miracles were recognized as unique.  They are described as a sign confirming Jesus' status and ministry.  True, Jesus promised that his disciples would also do miracles, and indeed, miracles are one reason why Christianity spread to become the world's largest community of faith.  (Surveys of new converts in Ethiopia and India have shown this, and I have seen it informally in China.)  

But Jesus' miracles were not gaudy, nor compulsory.  Jesus did not turn the temple into an egg, or make blood fall from the sky, or anything like that.  Most of his miracles were directed at practical problems, and confirmed the faith of individuals -- like most genuine miracles in the Christian tradition.  (I don't believe all "Christian" miracles, either.)   


CA: "Consider for a moment if the contested end of Mark 16 was actually true, and the way others could know Jesus was risen was that true believers could drink poison without being harmed, or be bit by poisonous snakes and be fine.  Or let’s go with something a bit less dramatic: What if Catholic priests, and only Catholic priests in good standing with their god (ie. no rapists/pedophiles) could actually transubstantiate a bread and wine into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ?  I’m not talking about after eating, I’m talking about having the bread and wine on an altar, praying/ritualizing, and then having it transform into actual flesh and blood.  Let’s assume this material is not actually consumed to keep our thought experiment more palatable."

That's still disgusting.  Sounds like a horror movie, honestly.  


But it would also be unlike real Gospel miracles, as I explain in Jesus and the Religions of Man Pity no one reads that book. 


CA: "Imagine if that had been happening since 33 AD? And over the years as science and technology advanced we would have seen that transubstantiated flesh and blood across the world ended up all having the exact same DNA and genetic markers. It wouldn’t matter if rye and merlot were transubstantiated or wonder bread and a box wine were used.  So long as the priest truly believed and was sanctified as they believe they are now, BAM we get some flesh and blood on Sundays. 

"Imagine no other religions could perform a similar kind of feat. Repeated tests in laboratories in controlled conditions always show the sanctified priests can do the job, but the same motions/words by non-believers doesn’t do anything. 

"In this case, we would have the kind of inductive evidence required by the historical method to believe in the Christian-specific miracle claims of Jesus’s resurrection.

"But of course we don’t have that, nor anything remotely close to it in the actual world."

And thank God we don't!

This reminds me of the atheist at Seattle Pacific University who said in a debate that God could instantly build a skyscraper on campus, and then he'd believe.  Which makes me think, it was the devil, since the canopy of trees at SPU are so much more beautiful and peaceful than another skyscraper -- as much as I love good architecture.  Or of Richard Carrier's endless proposals for what God would do if He really existed, in Why I am Not a Christian.  Do all atheists have such appalling taste?

And that gets to the heart of the matter.  As C. S. Lewis recognized, Jesus' miracles followed a higher aesthetic that reflects the glory of the Creation. 

That aesthetic does not, it appears, involve forcing most of us to believe, whether we want to or not.  Miracles of the sort CA calls for here would arguably make real faith impossible -- not because faith is not based on evidence, but because we would all feel as if a very tasteless God were hanging over us all the time, without allowing us any freedom to act, any real adventure (if every Christian could cure as Jesus cured), and miracles (and life itself) would lose their drama.

I am glad we do not live in CA's world.  I think I'd go crazy.  I find willow shoots coming up in winter more subtle, but also more beautiful and genuinely persuasive.

Christian miracles work from within our hearts, even as they are outside confirmations: they are messages in a language we can understand, being telos-minded creatures ourselves.  The "signs" the world, and sometimes the Church, seem to prefer, are tasteless, tacky, and sub-human, showing they are not really from God.    


CA: "The point is that there isn’t anything specific about the historical method or rationality that excludes belief in miracles a-priori, the point is that they could support belief if facts about the contemporary world were different. It just so happens that the world doesn’t support this. 

"Note that this is different from an argument from Divine Hiddenness against the existence of a god. After all, perhaps a god exists and it doesn’t want there to be a rational basis for believing in any given religion over another. "

CA is neglecting the excluded middle.  Maybe God exists and has given us ample, but not overwhelming, reason to believe, revealing His nature as well as giving our faith intellectual support.  In fact I think that's the case.  Compare Sai Baba's tacky miracles.  Aside from being a creep and apparently a sexual predator of sorts, Sai Baba also had bad taste and affronted our humanity.  Now read the gospels.  "Rational basis" is more than just "historical or scientific evidence," it is also evidence of a genuinely divine touch that fulfills our humanity.   


CA: "All I’m arguing for is that theists lack a rational basis for believing in a specific religion over others."


If you want to do that, you'd better start reading, because you're not even aiming at the right targets, yet.    

CA: "I also don’t think that Plantinga style arguments related to properly basic beliefs are going to save specific religious belief. After all those kinds of arguments are typically advanced in defense of theistic belief, but I don’t think they can easily extend to cover Christian-theistic belief over say Islamic-theistic belief.  After all, once believers are aware of the fact that such an epistemology just as equally covers belief in Islam or Hinduism, how can they trust their intuitions about such complex contingent matters like those involved in specific religious belief to be a reliable guide to the truth?"

I tend to agree here.    


CA: "This would be compounded by problems posed by the geographic distribution of religious belief.  It seems odd to say that the intuitions I formed in a specific culture just so happen to point me to the dominant religion in my area, therefore I’m justified in believing that religion when the same justification is used to justify belief in a contradictory religion on the other side of the world in a different culture . . ."

I answer that objection, as a scholar of world religions who has studied the spread of Christianity, in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story. 


I argue that in fact, the evidence within cultures on the other side of the world -- Greece, the Norse world, India, and China -- points not to the truth of pagan religions, but to the truth of Christianity.  Again, there is a large body of work that CA needs to come to grips with, before making the argument that he offers -- not just from me, of course, I am mostly summarizing what many other observers first described.  

CA: "Or I could well be wrong about all this, or perhaps such a demand for rational justification would force me to abandon atheism or naturalism in favor of a metaphysical agnosticism.  Those are bullets I may well have to bite.

"I’d just like to hear from those who think I've gone wrong here. 

"Let's give it a shot."

OK, Counter Apologist, I've answered you.   And to be frank, I think there are a bunch of books and whole bodies of truth you should come to grips with before you try to develop this argument any further -- or, if you're genuinely interested in thinking through these issues more deeply, they will help you with that, as well.  Perhaps when you're finished, we can have another conversation.  If you still hold to your present skeptical views, no doubt you'll have better-informed challenges to offer.  Better yet, I hope you'll be attracted by what you discover, as you read and think further about how the Gospel relates to the world.  

5 comments:

the mediocrecommission said...

Very interesting post David. Some of my family members followed Sai Baba, and he was a creepy pervert. But CA's comments reminds me of a few Michael Shermer debates that I have listened to. He has this lame joke that the miracle that would prove God exists would be $10 million landing in his bank account. Yawn. But Shermer always brings up the question of why God won't heal amputees. (In fact, there's even a website out there with the same question: http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/) I guess the nut of the question is a good one - that is, why don't we see healing miracles that are so amazing, and so beyond our technology, that they can only be a sign from God? Like the ones Jesus did.

David B Marshall said...

Sounds like Shermer has God confused with a particularly wealthy tooth fairy.

Most people in Jesus' day didn't see him work miracles, either. Suppose ten thousand witnessed his miracles. If the world population was 170 million in those days, then your chance of being one of the witnesses was just one in 17,000.

But I think some people have experienced some pretty remarkable miracles in our time, too. Again, let me refer you to Keener and / or Metaxis.

A Counter Apologist said...

I've written my reply. http://counterapologist.blogspot.com/2017/02/david-marshall-oppressed-faithless.html

I must wonder if you think the Apostles were faithless and oppressed, not being free to act - having witnessed miracles verifying Jesus's divinity.

I also wonder why if miracles aren't required as confirmation of someones teaching being truly divine, that willow shoots coming up during winter combined with Jesus's teachings alone aren't enough to confirm that he's the son of god who we must believe in.

David B Marshall said...

CA: OK, I'll take a look.

I don't understand either one of your questions.

David B Marshall said...

I read the first few paragraphs of CA's response to the piece above, but found it extremely presumptuous. He clearly didn't have the slightest idea what I was talking about, or what the basis for my opinions were, so he just made up some ridiculous notions, put them in my mouth, and attacked those. So apparently he was just pretending to ask serious questions in a sincere way, in the article I respond to above.