Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Theologian's Nightmare

"The eminent theologian Dr. Thaddeus dreamt that he died and pursued
his course toward heaven. His studies had prepared him and he had no difficulty
in finding the way. He knocked at the door of heaven, and was met with
a closer scrutiny than he expected. "I ask admission," he said,
"because I was a good man and devoted my life to the glory of God."
"Man?" said the janitor, "What is that? And how could such
a funny creature as you do anything to promote the glory of God?"
Dr. Thaddeus was astonished. "You surely cannot be ignorant of man.
You must be aware that man is the supreme work of the Creator." "As
to that," said the janitor, "I am sorry to hurt your feelings,
but what you're saying is news to me. I doubt if anybody up here has ever
heard of this thing you call 'man.' However, since you seem distressed,
you shall have a chance of consulting our librarian."

The librarian, a globular being with a thousand eyes and one mouth,
bent some of his eyes upon Dr. Thaddeus. "What is this?" he asked
the janitor. "This," replied the janitor, "says that it
is a member of a species called 'man,' which lives in a place called 'Earth.'
It has some odd notion that the Creator takes a special interest in this
place and this species. I thought perhaps you could enlighten it."
"Well," said the librarian kindly to the theologian, "perhaps
you can tall me where this place is that you call 'Earth.'" "Oh,"
said the theologian, "it's part of the Solar System." "And
what is the Solar System?" asked the librarian. "Oh," said
the theologian, somewhat disconcerted, "my province was Sacred Knowledge,
but the question that you are asking belongs to profane knowledge. However,
I have learnt enough from my astronomical friends to be able to tell you
that the Solar System is part of the Milky Way." "And what is
the Milky Way?" asked the librarian. "Oh, the Milky Way is one
of the Galaxies, of which, I am told, there are some hundred million."
"Well, well," said the librarian, "you could hardly expect
me to remember one out of so many. But I do remember to have heard the
word galaxy' before. In fact, I believe that one of our sub-librarians
specializes in galaxies. Let us send for him and see whether he can help."


After no very long time, the galactic sub-librarian made his appearance.
In shape, he was a dodecahedron. It was clear that at one time his surface
had been bright, but the dust of the shelves had rendered him dim and opaque.
The librarian explained to him that Dr. Thaddeus, in endeavoring to account
for his origin, had mentioned galaxies, and it was hoped that information
could be obtained from the galactic section of the library. "Well,"
said the sub-librarian, "I suppose it might become possible in time,
but as there are a hundred million galaxies, and each has a volume to itself,
it takes some time to find any particular volume. Which is it that this
odd molecule desires?" "It is the one called 'The Milky Way,'"
Dr. Thaddeus falteringly replied. "All right," said the sub-
librarian, "I will find it if I can."

Some three weeks later, he returned, explaining that the extraordinarily
efficient card index in the galactic section of the library had enabled
him to locate the galaxy as number QX 321,762. "We have employed,"
he said, "all the five thousand clerks in the galactic section on
this search. Perhaps you would like to see the clerk who is specially concerned
with the galaxy in question?" The clerk was sent for and turned out
to be an octahedron with an eye in each face and a mouth in one of them.
He was surprised and dazed to find himself in such a glittering region,
away from the shadowy limbo of his shelves. Pulling himself together, he
asked, rather shyly, "What is it you wish to know about my galaxy?"
Dr. Thaddeus spoke up: "What I want is to know about the Solar System,
a collection of heavenly bodies revolving about one of the stars in your
galaxy. The star about which they revolve is called 'the Sun.'" "Humph,"
said the librarian of the Milky Way, "it was hard enough to hit upon
the right galaxy, but to hit upon the right star in the galaxy is far more
difficult. I know that there are about three hundred billion stars in the
galaxy, but I have no knowledge, myself, that would distinguish one of
them from another. I believe, however, that at one time a list of the whole
three hundred billion was demanded by the Administration and that it is
still stored in the basement. If you think it worth while, I will engage
special labor from the Other Place to search for this particular star."


It was agreed that, since the question had arisen and since Dr. Thaddeus
was evidently suffering some distress, this might be the wisest course.


Several years later, a very weary and dispirited tetrahedron presented
himself before the galactic sub-librarian. "I have," he said,
"at last discovered the particular star concerning which inquiries
have been made, but I am quite at a loss to imagine why it has aroused
any special interest. It closely resembles a great many other stars in
the same galaxy. It is of average size and temperature, and is surrounded
by very much smaller bodies called 'planets.' After minute investigation,
I discovered that some, at least, of these planets have parasites, and
I think that this thing which has been making inquiries must be one of
them."

At this point, Dr. Thaddeus burst out in a passionate and indignant
lament: "Why, oh why, did the Creator conceal from us poor inhabitants
of Earth that it was not we who prompted Him to create the Heavens? Throughout
my long life, I have served Him diligently, believing that He would notice
my service and reward me with Eternal Bliss. And now, it seems that He
was not even aware that I existed. You tell me that I am an infinitesimal
animalcule on a tiny body revolving round an insignificant member of a
collection of three hundred billion stars, which is only one of many millions
of such collections. I cannot bear it, and can no longer adore my Creator."
"Very well," said the janitor, "then you can go to the Other
Place."

Here the theologian awoke. "The power of Satan over our sleeping
imagination is terrifying," he muttered."



This just never fails to boggle my mind. Can one be rationally justified in believing that we have a special place in this universe after knowing our little place in it? A question I find interesting that was posed by Christopher Hitchens:
"Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old, and very nearly joined
the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming
extinct, in Africa, 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell
below 2,000 before we embarked on our true "exodus" from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be
expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be
expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original "big bang" will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own,
the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with
a naked eye in the night sky?"

I personally find it unlikely. What do you think?

14 comments:

Andres said...

*Continued conversation from my facebook note*



"The influence of such persons may reflect a heightened spiritual consciousness, or may simply represent people attempting to explain the world as best they could given the tools of the time. Such scholars purport that passages in scripture related to slavery, war, genocide, female marginalization, and sex between men may not necessarily be about God's wishes, but rather about the predominant culture's opinions at the time of the passage's writing."


Fenton, this just shows me the man-made nature of religion, and how religion must evolve to keep up with the times. I find it hard to believe that one could reconcile the notion of a God who does not change his mind, who's laws are eternal, with that of a God who somehow semi-clumsily allows his followers to insert their own personal biases in the book that He wants to spread throughout the entire world in order to have more of his children come to Him.

It may very well be that the passages in the Tanakh and in the New Testament reflect nothing but the cultural norms of the time, yet, how could we know?
It seems to me like this is something left up to heavy speculation and interpretation. How can we find an objective way of deciphering what God's position on this issues are? The Torah law against homosexuality is an extremely severe one. It calls for the death of homosexuals. If this does not represent God's wishes, then how many more laws in the Torah reflect nothing but man's attitudes at the time?
The kosher laws?
The sacrificial laws?
The virgin laws?

It seems to me like once you accept this position, the Bible is then thrust into a den of confusion and relativistic interpretations subject to our moral positions at any given time.

Andres said...

You also said:

"Andres, I’m amazed that you would take seriously a position you abhor, especially coming from (mostly) a group of people that you and I both think are (in at least this circumstance) unreasonable, that get their beliefs from their own (unreasonable) interpretations of an historical document with which you do not agree that purports a belief and doctrine in a God in which you do not believe."

Here you say that these people hold unreasonable positions.
You are a Christian, you read the article. When I was a Christian, I remember that any argument or position that one could hold had to be defended scripturally. This is what they've done. To me, the passages in the Bible are very much clear on what ought to be done with homosexuals, and these folks (the website I quoted from isn't an extremist group, it is a mainline protestant organization) read the passages and get the clear message.
If their position is unreasonable and do not reflect God's wishes, how can we know?

Andres said...

"And? Most churches, and a good many Christians, don’t simply pray for their fellow parishioners, but tend to extend their prayers to all people. So to say that an unbeliever’s cancer spontaneously disappeared does not rule out the possibility of prayer. That’s all."

I've never ruled out the possibility of prayer. However, after reading countless articles and books on the subject, I've yet to see one single shred of evidence that Prayer does absolutely anything more than a mere placebo effect on its patients.

When the emergency technician is about to apply CPR, nobody says: "Wait! Let's pray first."

The belief in the healing power of prayer is nothing more than communal reinforcement and selective thinking. People ignore all the times that events don't coincide with their prayers and they call attention to the times that events fall in line with the intentions of their prayers.

Here's just one study:

http://www.ahjonline.com/article/PIIS0002870305006496/abstract


They found that those who were prayed for, and knew about it even got worse!

Also, once you introduce prayer, all of the sciences get thrown out the window. Once you assume that a supernatural being can come into the universe and tinker with it if he/she so wishes, then there's no reliable way to conduct science. Scientists rely on the uniformity of nature in order to come to conclusions, to detect causal interactions. If there's a deity out there tinkering with anything at will, then there's no way to trust anything we observe.

Secondly, if it is true that a supernatural being came down and healed person X after prayer. Why could we not also posit the possibility that this supernatural being also came down that night, and killed person Y?

It follows from the logic that we can attribute anything to this being.

Fenton said...

"Fenton, this just shows me the man-made nature of religion..."

Actually, it shows that varying interpretations arise over time, especially once a document is thrust into such varying cultures and times and most likely pushed out of proper context.

"I find it hard to believe that one could reconcile the notion of a God..."

Why does it need to be reconciled? The Bible is filled with cultural laws and standards including those referencing 'homosexuality'. The Leviticus 20 passage is surely cultural as 'the Lord' prefaces the laws and regulations by stating that they "apply to those who are Israelites by birth as well as to the foreigners living among you." Furthermore, the Leviticus 18 passage speaks of not sleeping with your father's wives, indicating it is meant as cultural.

That we've become ignorant to cultural contexts is not to say that God was clumsy in His inspiration of the Bible.

Granted, the multiple interpretations leads to confusion in certain areas; yet the confusion is in that which is secondary to the ultimate purpose of God's inspired word, that is, God revealing Himself and providing a means of salvation.

Fenton said...

"Here you say that these people hold unreasonable positions."

Unreasonable based upon our (or simply, if you prefer, my) opinion. Unreasonable in that through their positions they impose harmful legislation against a people supposedly protected against such legislation, not to mention that they impose unverified truths concerning God to a people who may have otherwise accepted God.

"You are a Christian, you read the article. When I was a Christian, I remember that any argument or position that one could hold had to be defended scripturally. This is what they've done."

And my position is equally defended Scripturally, through an alternative interpretation based upon a different understanding of the cultural and contextual implications of said Scriptures.

That there is even still debate as to the exact meaning of those Scriptures is reason enough to dispute anyone's claim that homosexuality is wrong in the sight of God.

"To me, the passages in the Bible are very much clear on what ought to be done with homosexuals..."

The Bible is also very much clear on what ought to be done with adulterers, liars, theives, those who plant different crops in the same field, those who curse, those who cut their hair and trim their beards, those who eat shellfish, and those who work on the Sabbath.

In what ways are the contexts of these laws made any more clear than that of homosexuality?

"...and these folks (the website I quoted from isn't an extremist group, it is a mainline protestant organization) read the passages and get the clear message."

That this debate even exists is proof that the message is anything but clear.

"If their position is unreasonable and do not reflect God's wishes, how can we know?"

If we cannot come to a final conclusion as to the proper context concerning these specific Scriptures, how can we state that such a thing is actually an 'abomination' in the sight of God, much less that one ought to be put to death for such an 'abomination'(especially since this 'abomination' may in fact be genetic)?

Fenton said...

"I've never ruled out the possibility of prayer. However, after reading countless articles and books on the subject, I've yet to see one single shred of evidence that Prayer does absolutely anything more than a mere placebo effect on its patients."

It's wonderful that you don't rule out the posibility, Andres. Yet, you are right in that there is no empirical evidence that confirms prayer. Though as I said in the facebook note, that would completely undermine the point of faith.

"When the emergency technician is about to apply CPR, nobody says: 'Wait! Let's pray first.'"

This made me laugh. Thanks, dude. And yes, I agree. The point of prayer is not to undermine science.

"Also, once you introduce prayer, all of the sciences get thrown out the window."

This is basically the same as a point I made on the facebook note. In other words, there is no verifiable way to test the power of prayer.

"Secondly, if it is true that a supernatural being came down and healed person X after prayer. Why could we not also posit the possibility that this supernatural being also came down that night, and killed person Y?"

If we are dealing with a non-specific being, then yes. But as it concerns a specific being, such as the Judeo-Christian God, we can apply what we know of this specific being (via agreed upon Scripture) to determine whether or not said being would 'kill person Y'. In the case of Judeo-Christian God, we can say that God did not come down and 'kill person Y'.

"It follows from the logic that we can attribute anything to this being."

To a non-specific being, yes. But as pointed out above, to a specific being, not necessarily.

Andres said...

Fenton, I don't know exactly what else there is to discuss. You don't fit into the 'normal' Christian category that we're used to talking and debating with.

It looks to me like we have more in common that we have in differences...so... :-/

I don't know what else is there to talk about.

Fenton said...

There are more of us that don't fit into the normal Christian category than you think. And there is always more that unites us than there is that divides us.

We can talk about whatever you'd like, Andres. :)

David Plumb said...

Fenton, one thing that I've been wondering recently is why do Christians value faith so much? What makes faith such a virtue? Is there reasoning outside of the biblical commands?

Fenton said...

As you said, David, it's Scripture (as the written word of God) that places such value in faith. Are there reasons outside of the Biblical commands? Other than that we as Christians believe Jesus and God actually proclaimed such things, I don't know.

Perhaps it has something to do with this:

1 John 4:20
"If someone says, 'I love God,' but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we have not seen?"

That, if we find that we can have faith enough in God (whom we cannot see) to achieve that perfect love in Him, how much greater will our love be for each other, and for Him when at last we do see Him face to face, and our faith becomes reality.

Perhaps that's it, David, that faith is the means of achieving perfect love; and that God is love (1 John 4:8) is certainly a good reason that faith should be so highly valued.

In other words, faith helps us to love more perfectly.

I hope that made sense.

I'll think on this some more.

David Plumb said...

I understand the Biblical basis of faith in god and Jesus, but do you think faith outside of this realm is justified?

Faith, as I understand in a general sense, is believing something without evidence (or without an acceptable amount of evidence). This practice seems credulous when applied in situations such as finance, relationships, or ordinary day-to-day beliefs. So why does god and Jesus get a free pass on this scrutiny? By free pass I mean that Christians accept their existence and supernatural attributes in a way that they wouldn't accept, say, an email telling them a Nigerian king wants to wire them a million dollars. Also, by free pass I mean non-Christians allow Christians to reserve this area of their life without questioning. Some even consider questioning the faith an insult or a personal attack.

Thoughts?

Fenton said...

“Faith, as I understand in a general sense, is believing something without evidence (or without an acceptable amount of evidence).”

This is probably where semantics plays a huge part. You could do a poll of every Christian in the world and undoubtedly an overwhelming majority would claim they have evidence of some kind that has led them to their current beliefs. So, we have to ask ourselves, are we talking about the same type of faith?

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as such: “It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see.”

In other words, we can have evidence for the things we believe, or have evidence that leads us to believe it will work out as we are told, but regardless of that past evidence, faith is assurance in the face of future uncertainty.

For example: I know that my wife loves me. I know that she would never cheat on me. I have personal evidences that lead me to that logical conclusion. But regardless of the evidence that shows her to be a faithful spouse, I cannot know for certain whether or not she will remain faithful. So what I have in her is faith, faith that she will continue as she has thus far. This is just one of many examples: reliability of your car, flying in an airplane, buying food from a grocery store and so on. We rely on our experiences that our car will not fail us, that flying is still the safest way to travel, and that the food we buy will not be bad. Yet, since we cannot say with certainty that all of those things necessarily mean our next experience will be such, we have faith that it will be so.

So, I would say that most Christians do not give God and Jesus a free pass. We all approach them with the same scrutiny as anything else, but we also rely on our experiences (and other such personal evidence) to lead us to the right choice, just as we do in matters of finance, relationships and day to day beliefs.

I accept God and Jesus because my experiences tell me to. I do not accept an email from a Nigerian King because 1) I do not know them, 2)They would have no way of knowing me personally or of emailing me specifically, and 3) because I have experience in dealing with similar emails that have turned out to be fake.

To those who view questioning their faith as an insult or personal attack I say this: Is your faith so little, that you run at the first sign of opposition? We are called to proclaim our faith and to challenge it and to defend it. If we run away from those things, how can we even say that we have faith?

I think Andres and I spoke about this (defending and challenging beliefs) a little bit somewhere… But I think this is the main idea of it.

Hope this helps.

David Plumb said...

I don't think we're using a different definition of faith, but a different definition of evidence. The sort of evidence given by believers is not what I would call evidence, such as anecdotes, attributing supernatural causes to events, the bible, or other appeals to authority.

I know that it is a tenet of faith that one ought not be offended or withdraw when challenged, but the reason I brought it up is that this reaction also helps to insulate faith based beliefs rather than subject them to skepticism.

Fenton said...

“I don't think we're using a different definition of faith, but a different definition of evidence. The sort of evidence given by believers is not what I would call evidence, such as anecdotes, attributing supernatural causes to events, the bible, or other appeals to authority.”

Ahhh… Well then I guess we’re at a standstill on that issue.

And though you may not accept the believer’s definition of evidence, I would be interested to know whether or not you still believe that faith seems credulous in the situations you spoke of originally. Because to me, at least, even though you may have experience to back up a belief, there is still no way of knowing absolutely the future outcome of that belief.

“I know that it is a tenet of faith that one ought not be offended or withdraw when challenged, but the reason I brought it up is that this reaction also helps to insulate faith based beliefs rather than subject them to skepticism.”

Do you mean to say that not withdrawing and defending insulates the belief or that considering questioning an insult or attack insulates the belief? If you mean the latter I would agree with you.