October 06, 2007

Adventures in Missing the Point

I enjoy watching debates and listening to opposing parties mix it up on news programs. Unfortunately, it can be quite frustrating to watch sometimes, especially if the guy on my side of the issue doesn't think of that perfect response that would be raised "if I were him." The most aggravating thing is when my man allows himself to get bogged down in an argument raised against him (or her), but doesn't even notice that it is entirely beside the main point of the discussion or that it is based upon a flawed assumption. This is such a common thing in the world of debate and advocacy that examples abound. Perhaps discussing a few might give the reader a better sense of what I mean in addition to becoming better equipped to spot this polemical pothole in the future.

Anti-War Rhetoric

Without getting into the politics of whether or not I support the military presence in Iraq, let me just mention a common tactic I see in defense of the idea that we should pull our troops out. Images, stories, and statistics of the dead and injured are regularly employed to show us the horror of this thing. How awful; why would we do something that would cause such misery for ourselves and the civilians of another country? Worse, the occasional moral atrocities of our own people are indiscriminately publicized, as if to suggest that this is what we are all about and what such an occupation amounts to.
But this is not really an argument against this war. If casualties and regrettable abuses were a valid defeater for the idea of going to war, then we should not have joined battle against Nazi Germany, where such things happened in vastly greater numbers. Yet few are so shortsighted as to suggest that the losses were not justified in that conflict. The point is not to lament over the terrible effects of military action; the point is whether or not we should engage in this particular offensive. All outrage over the victims simply assumes that we should not and misses the real point of focus for the discussion.

Pro-Choice Tactics

"Every child should be a wanted child." "It's a private decision between me and my doctor." "It's a matter of conscience between me and my God." "Stop oppressing women." "Don't like abortion, then don't have one."

These are the kinds of statements that are often tossed out by "pro-choice" advocates. Some allow themselves to get caught up in a discussion provoked by such bumper sticker defenses, but they are really nothing so much as chaff from a fighter jet to distract from the real target. The primary point in this debate is whether or not the unborn is a valuable human person who should not be killed over matters of choice and convenience.

One of the ways to drive the point home is to substitute a toddler in place of the fetus. For example, we could revise and expand some of the statements as follows. "Every child should be a wanted child, so I should be free to dispose of my unwanted toddlers." Or, "Don't like killing toddlers, then don't kill yours." Or how about, "It's a private matter between me, my doctor, and my God. If we're okay with killing my toddler, then who are you to get involved?"

If this kind of thinking evokes horror in the mind of the "choice" advocate, then it is clear that he or she does not believe that the unborn is a human person. If the fetus is, then none of these kinds of slogans are justification for murder. But if the fetus is not a valuable human person, then no justification is necessary. The point of focus in this issue, then, is the nature of the unborn.

Gay Advocacy

The topic of same-sex marriage came up on a radio show the other day, and by way of support for it the host shared this observation: "I never even thought about it till my two friends got married. And then I thought, 'Wow, they seem so happy together. I should stay out of the way there.'"

The problem is that there are plenty of things that make people happy of which even most liberal thinkers disapprove. If you haven't already thought of some yourself, here are a few examples I could offer: smoking, alcohol abuse, drug use, dog fighting, pedophilia, rape, and (for our green friends) driving a gas guzzling SUV. The mere fact that someone might like to do these things does not in itself justify them. Support for the behavior must stand upon other grounds.

This roundabout defense is one in a series that includes appeals to consent, human rights, and genetics. But if a behavior turns out to be unacceptable, then no amount of consent is relevant, there are no rights to it, and even genetic predisposition does not apply. Simply replace same-sex relations with pedophilia to see the failure of each of these ploys. It doesn't matter how much happiness, consent, and biological predisposition is involved, it still won't fly (at least not at the time of this writing). There is something deeper at issue that is the point of concern with things like pedophilia and same-sex marriage that washes out the mere subjective defenses.

Christian Skepticism

This summer I had a conversation with a family friend who fancies himself a well-informed atheist. His objections were all of a kind, which included complaints about the crusades, questioning Constantine's motives, and psychoanalyzing believers. While these are all interesting topics that can be exhaustively explored they really miss the important point of whether or not the God of the Bible is real. Constantine could be a scoundrel, Christians could behave miserably in war, and people could be spiritually needy, yet the biblical authors could still have recorded actual events.

And somewhat related, I recently listened to a radio show caller ask the host how to handle a friend of his who refused to recognize his definition of the word "faith." It seems the Christian wanted to define it as trust in what you have good reason to believe, while his skeptical friend wanted to define it as belief in what you have no evidence for. Unfortunately, their bickering over definitions only reflected the really important point of difference between them. The problem is that the skeptic does not believe that there really is any good evidence for Christianity, and so faith must necessarily be blind. Even if this fellow could accept the Christian understanding of faith, for the sake of argument, the conversation would only be stuck on the "good reason to believe" part of the definition.

Intelligent Design Debate

I'm currently listening through an audio book on Intelligent Design (ID), which features various scholars on both sides of the debate. As one of the introductory questions, the host asked each evolution supporter what he thought about Intelligent Design. The answers were remarkable in their consistency, and included such comments as the following: Evolution is well established and silly to argue with. ID is just creationism with a pseudo-scientific façade. ID is not science. ID rejects natural explanations. ID is a religious movement.

But whether or not these charges are accurate is not really the point. So what if it were true that every ID advocate is a fundamentalist Christian? So what if ID ran afoul of the current definition of "science?" The really important question is, Are certain things in the biological world the product of Intelligent Design?

What I did not hear was any kind of substantive response to this bottom-line point, only fussing with semantics, motivations, and implications. No one responded by saying that complex protein systems do not actually resemble existing machinery of human design. No one responded that we actually know the chemical pathways to any molecular machinery. No one responded that mutational statistics have been applied to the problem of gene evolution and found to be within reasonable probabilities.

Conclusion

The point is the point. Learn to identify the crux of the matter and the hinge upon which any given issue turns. Be vigilant for the presuppositions and worldview assumptions underlying someone's arguments. And don't be diverted by non-productive and non-essential side issues. There are a million peripheral concerns to debate, but if the distractions are winnowed you may just be surprised at the fundamental simplicity of many issues. It may not get you any closer to agreement, but you'll at least be riding the point without swirling aimlessly in the wake of the debate.

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25 Comments:

At 10/06/2007 10:58 PM, Blogger millerjmike said...

Well said. It is all too easy to get caught up in the smoke and miss the fire when discussing issues. There is a temptation to respond to, and defend oneself, from ad hominem attacks which only distreact from the issue at hand.

 
At 10/06/2007 11:18 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Smoke and fire: another good metaphor for what I'm getting at. Thanks (Mike?).

 
At 10/07/2007 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comparing pedophilia and same-sex marriage is beyond ludicrous. Same-sex marriage is between two consenting adults. Pedophilia is taking advantage of a psychologically malleable child.

And who is it that determines whether a behavior is acceptable? The only reason I know that people disagree with homosexuality is because it's condemned in some ancient, dusty text. If you allow you're ideals to be defined by text, then I feel you should seriously reconsider things.

What it comes down to it that homosexuals are not infringing on anyone, so why not just let them be happy? And please stop attempting to implicitly compare pedophilia to homosexuality.

 
At 10/08/2007 2:13 AM, Blogger Andy said...

Anonymous,

Excellent example of exactly what this post was trying to point out. Referring to a holy book as "some ancient, dusty text" has little bearing on whether or not the book holds truth or not. And, of course, if you believe that "dusty text" to be a book of truth, what reason would you have to not want to conform your ideals to its own?

You have also sidestepped the question of whether or not homosexuality is acceptable according to an objective moral standard with the comment "homosexuals are not infringing on anyone", which was already dealt with in the article.

Also, your argument from outrage at the comparing of homosexuality to pedophilia addresses the relationship aspect, but not the individual aspect (i.e. the pedophile). Your assertion leaves open the idea the only thing wrong with pedophilia when a pedophile actually enacts their desires upon a child. This of course leaves open the possibility of viewing child pornography as being an acceptable practice. The condemnation would be solely upon those who produced the materials, since they are the ones who actually harm the child, but under this criteria nothing can be said about those who simply indulge themselves with the viewing of such materials. In other words, you are saying that there is nothing wrong with pedophilia as long as you don't hurt a child. I don't know how many people would take issue with this statement, but I certainly would.

 
At 10/08/2007 12:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And who is it that determines whether a behavior is acceptable?"

I do!

"The only reason I know that people disagree with homosexuality is because it's condemned in some ancient, dusty text."

I disagree because I think it's gross!

"If you allow you're(sic) ideals to be defined by text, then I feel you should seriously reconsider things."

On what basis do you base your ideals?

 
At 10/08/2007 1:32 PM, Blogger Paul said...

That was a good response, Andy, which covered some of the points I would have raised. At the risk of being redundant, I will add some of my own thoughts.

Anon #1 said, "Comparing pedophilia and same-sex marriage is beyond ludicrous. Same-sex marriage is between two consenting adults. Pedophilia is taking advantage of a psychologically malleable child."

I'm glad you find pedophilia to be objectionable; otherwise my reductio ad absurdum argument would have been an utter failure. I'm not specifically arguing moral equivalence, though. What I'm doing is pointing out that many of the same defenses used for homosexuality can be used for other objectionable issues; consequently, those arguments are simply not sufficient.

You implicitly affirm my point in that your objection goes somewhat beyond the flawed defenses I site. However, it suffers from its own problems, one of which Andy points out. That is, if we can generate child pornography without psychological impact to children, then we have avoided your objection. For example, we could just leverage the existing materials without allowing new, or we could permit photography of nudist children, and/or we could allow virtual child porn.

Another problem is that it seems that informed consent may actually be possible to achieve. If we completely informed, say, a 12 year old of the situation, got the child's and the parent's consent, and insured that the adult did nothing physically harmful to the child and used proper precautions for STD and pregnancy, then would it be okay? We allow children and parents to do many other things that are potentially deadly to children.

My wife and I consented to let my preteen daughter compete with horses and she nearly broke her back. I saw many injured and psychologically traumatized kids at the various summer camps I frequented as a child. And heck, 40 kids and their parents recently consented to 40 days in New Mexico living without adult supervision, and waived their legal rights to ABC in the event of food poisoning, pregnancy, and even death. I see no arrests forthcoming with any of these things.

Mature, informed consent only works with morally neutral actions. You rightly intuit that pedophilia is not morally neutral (though I could argue that it is from an atheistic perspective), but you seem to assume that homosexuality is morally neutral.

Anon #1 said, "The only reason I know that people disagree with homosexuality is because it's condemned in some ancient, dusty text."

I beg to differ. If you peruse my blog you will notice that I do not argue my case for ethical and scientific issues from Scripture. Why should I? They are meaningless to those like you. And I am not alone in this. Perhaps you are unaware of the broader world of Christian philosophy and ethics where attempts to meet differing minds upon the common grounds of shared assumptions and principles of reason is the norm.

If you are interested in a purely secular assessment of homosexuality, I would begin by asking two questions. 1) Look at the anatomy of the male and female bodies. They are unique, in case you have not noticed. What was "nature's" purpose in constructing such complimentary plumbing? 2) Are you familiar with any health related concerns that accompany the homosexual lifestyle?

Anon #1 said, "What it comes down to it that homosexuals are not infringing on anyone, so why not just let them be happy?"

Not infringing on anyone? Oh, young Jedi, the Farce is strong with you. If homosexuals were merely fighting for the freedom to do their thing in private, that would be one debate. But the debate is beyond that (for many), or at least the final objective is. They are not looking for society to be merely permissive; they are seeking full approval and celebration of the lifestyle. They want to teach their values to our children. They want to reengineer domestic laws. They want to channel research and healthcare monies (which comes from my pocket) toward their own concerns. And they want to restrict the opinions that can be voiced in public. If you can call influenza non-infringing upon the human body, then perhaps homosexuals are non-infringing upon society.

 
At 10/08/2007 2:21 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Anon #2. Your response is actually deeper than would appear at first glance. Unfortunately, I'm not confident our guest will be up to playing the game you've unboxed for him. His seems like a drive by comment. For an example of a parade of one-off wonders, see all the comments provoked by this post.

 
At 10/08/2007 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul,
I love your site. I have been reading your blog for what I think is around 1 1/2 years, however I usually just lurk.

I could not resist a comment this time because of the irony (allthough I'm sure he didn't notice)in anon #1's comment.

Keep it up Paul. I have learned a great deal from you and your visitors.

Steve (formerly known as anon #2)

 
At 10/08/2007 3:18 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Steve! Great to have you come out of the closet (so to speak ;) Good to finally get a personal name associated with that city/state name I often see coming into the site. You, and the other lurkers I know are out there, are welcome to comment any time.

 
At 10/09/2007 6:26 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I found this post to be interesting and informative. Whilst you know we disagree on many of the issues you gave as examples, I found your analysis of tactics illuminating.

 
At 10/10/2007 11:18 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Psio. I'm glad I can put something out there once in a while that does more than simply underscore our differences.

If I cannot succeed in changing your position on important issues like these, I hope I can at least succeed in impressing upon you that we Christians can be thoughtful and that we don't just hold our opinions because they are found in "some ancient, dusty text" (to quote Anon #1).

 
At 10/14/2007 2:01 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Great post, Paul. I have noticed and been frustrated with the same things you have--red herrings. Several years ago, I decided to just start ignoring them and sticking to the point. But I have noticed a drawback to taking that approach. Red herrings may be fallacies, but they still have a great deal of rhetorical power. Ignoring the red herrings can sometimes leave the impression that you are without defense.

 
At 10/14/2007 10:46 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Very good observation, Sam. That's why I like to finish off a pointed response by using the ole, for the sake of argument...

 
At 11/03/2007 3:29 PM, Anonymous Kam said...

I don't make a habit of reading much on atheist blogs, but from time to time I'll read an article that is either interesting or something close to my heart. Mostly because I've been recently reading books, fiction and nonfiction, regarding the Holocaust, I was wondering what your major points would be to the atheists blaming God completely for the actions of those men who committed such atrocities(at http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/ specifically). The Christians who post there have been unable to get any of their points across there on the subject. I'm always interested in the way that other Christians would approach such topics, so that is why I am asking you. :-)

 
At 11/04/2007 1:49 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Kam,

Here are some points I would make:

I would first insist that they admit the existence of objective evil (and by association, good) before I would entertain their complaint. As apologist Greg Koukl would say, if they can't admit this then their objection is reduced to nothing more than the equivalent of, "If God is so good then why'd He make Brussels Sprouts? I hate Brussels Sprouts!" You can cut them off at the knees with this point, since they first have to make sense of their objection within the context of their own worldview. It's probably why I spend a lot of time writing on the nature of morality.

Beyond that, I would remind them who actually did the dirty work. Humans conceived of this and carried it out. They freely chose to do this and delighted in doing so, regardless of the complexities of God's sovereignty in human affairs. Christianity teaches that people are fallen and are guaranteed to sin in large and small ways. It is not a contradiction in the Christian system to find people doing evil things. If it were, then skeptics could complain when people were merely impolite. Just how much evil do they propose that God should allow? Just when it passes a certain threshold? It will all be finished eventually, and justice will be perfectly assessed. If God were to absolutely constrain all things now, then the unbeliever would soon discover that he was riddled with sin that God is patiently suffering. The unbeliever may just as well ask, "Why does got allow me to do evil things?"

The deeper question is why God took the route with humans that permitted a fall and where he must tolerate the resulting sin. He certainly knew that it would happen, and He certainly could have created an alternate reality. I do not think the freewill answer is deep enough, although it is certainly true that it is problematic to claim that a freewill creature could not have possibly chosen against God. I think the answer that there is a purpose in all this is biblical and does serious philosophical work.

While I will not be so presumptuous as to claim to know God's purposes in something like the Holocaust, I have certainly observed some interesting things in relation to it.

First, tell me what it would take to give the Jews a nation that must be carved out of hostile territory (or anybody else's territory)? The stage was interestingly set during WWII for nearly the entire world to agree to reinstate Israel. Do we take this to be a good thing, especially if we can assume that it may be a part of God's larger plan and that God's plans are ipso facto good?

Second, think of just about any conversation you've heard regarding moral relativism. How do people often refute the idea that morality is just a personal or cultural thing? By saying something like, "What about Hitler and Nazi Germany? Are you saying that they were in the right according to their own value system?" The Holocaust has been sadly indispensable for debunking the idea that "evil" is a fiction and that civilized, educated humans are basically good. If God disallowed any but our most petty sins we should never truly know ourselves.

Third, the Holocaust and all of the Nazi eugenic atrocities were not just the product of one evil, rouge man (Hitler). They were the logical outworking of evolutionary and humanistic ideas that had been brewing in Europe for decades prior. Ideas have consequences, and God's reductio ad absurdum argument may be to sometimes allow them to play out.

Fourth, in the Christian religion there are worse things than death and earthly suffering, and better things than a plush life. God has in mind for us to come into relationship with Him, and the pleasant distractions of life are often the enemy of that end. It may be difficult to reconcile individual instances of extreme suffering, but it just is a fact that hardship drives transcendent thinking. It may not be strictly true that there are no atheists in foxholes, but there are certainly few that do not think about such things as God and mortality under extreme duress. Yet the same sun melts wax and hardens clay, as they say, and so such hardships may only separate the sheep from the goats.

If you have read enough books, then perhaps you have run across the interesting stories of God's sovereignty at work within the madness, and the harvest that many Christians (who often also suffered) experienced among the Jews and even Germans. Is that a good thing? Is it preferable for them to have lived unmolested by their countrymen yet to die without the knowledge of their Messiah? But since the atheist is generally revolted by the idea that Jesus should be the exclusive means of salvation, it is difficult for them to think of this as anything other than innocent Jews, who already believe in God, who are just minding their own business when senseless evil comes to call.

 
At 11/16/2007 1:06 PM, Blogger Paul said...

And here is something else Holocaust related that I found interesting.

 
At 11/29/2007 3:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A pendantic point. Fighter planes don't toss out "flak" they toss out "chaff". Flak is shrapnel from exploding anti-aircraft shells. Chaff is shredded alluminum foil.

 
At 11/29/2007 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More seriously:

It is difficult for ME not to think of the Jews in the Holocaust as other then innocent Jews. And indeed from my point of view they are. That is many were more virtuous then me from the strictly human point of view and for me to say I am better because I was born with an easier access to the knowledge of Christ would be arrogance-I am luckier, not better.
So one really can't blame atheists on that point. Their indignation is right, it is simply misdirected. If the devil knows how to make himself look like an angel of light, he can also in our momments of grief tempt us to think that God is like himself.

 
At 11/29/2007 3:55 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Anon,

I welcome pedantic points and grammatical points, since these posts sometimes find a second life elsewhere.

I have to agree with your assessment of Jewish innocence. No reason to think of them as any more sinful than any other persons who do not believe in Christ, though God may have different purposes and sentiments toward them. And the fact that even devout Christians suffered alongside them rules out the idea that it was a matter of punishment for all parties involved.

 
At 10/05/2008 3:07 PM, Anonymous Riding the point said...

This a fairly thoughtful, though grievously one-sided argument from the point of view of those pursuing a certain "Christian" agenda. That does not make it wrong. It is not, however, the only Christian agenda. Your comments would carry greater force if they took up the logical fallacies of all sides on these questions.

None of us holds a monopoly on logic. We are all fallible. We all see through a glass darkly. That is why we were driven from the garden.

I was raised by loving, evangelical grandparents. Beyond the Ten Commandments, they taught me that I should not even imagine that I could arrive at unchallengeable truths on fundamental questions. We could only hope that we knew God's will. They told me that "The ways of God are mysterious to man." They believed that we were all created equal in his sight and that we were all equally loved by him even though we live our lives in a fallen state.

My grandfather was a humane, humble evangelical bricklayer and preacher in the Nazarene church. He and my grandmother prayed to God on their knees. Their beliefs were filled with an abiding faith, not finely spun logic, that when their time came they would be judged favorably by a just God.

 
At 10/05/2008 4:20 PM, Blogger Paul said...

This a fairly thoughtful, though grievously one-sided argument from the point of view of those pursuing a certain "Christian" agenda. That does not make it wrong. It is not, however, the only Christian agenda. Your comments would carry greater force if they took up the logical fallacies of all sides on these questions.

Thank you for opening with the complement, though I sense a deep disagreement between us, and I can probably guess where you are coming from for the most part.

I'm sorry, but I don't find it necessary to defend everyone else's view of truth. If I thought all views were equally worthy of consideration, I would probably not care enough to blog about my own. Most people do not, in practice, do the kind of two-sided argumentation that you suggest that I ought to do here (though I have in the past: here/here), and you are probably most concerned about it with me simply because of our apparent differences.

I would not like to characterize my own position as a Christian "agenda." It is not as though I have a particular preference about how the world ought to be and I am simply employing Christianity to leverage its clout in advancing my agenda. On the contrary, I simply think that I am being true to historic Christianity and right reason. Before I was a Christian I held many beliefs in opposition to what I hold now. But that was primarily because I didn't much care about them or think them through, even in a secular context. If we differ radically in our "Christian agendas," though I wonder how much we do, then perhaps we would first do well to consider what we each mean when we call ourselves "Christians." This plays into the theme of this blog post, where I point out that the peripheral disagreements often hide the deeper, more important differences.

None of us holds a monopoly on logic. We are all fallible. We all see through a glass darkly. That is why we were driven from the garden.

Monopoly? No, but we share logic in common, and if we cannot employ that in our discussions, then we have no grounds on which to compare one idea against another. I would also differ with your assessment of why we were driven from the garden. It is not because we merely fail to see and think clearly on spiritual matters; we fail to see clearly as a result of being separated from God. The cause of that separation is a matter of disobedience to what God had spoken. Which leads to the next point.

I was raised by loving, evangelical grandparents. Beyond the Ten Commandments, they taught me that I should not even imagine that I could arrive at unchallengeable truths on fundamental questions. We could only hope that we knew God's will. They told me that "The ways of God are mysterious to man." They believed that we were all created equal in his sight and that we were all equally loved by him even though we live our lives in a fallen state.

Since God has spoken in the same book in which we get the Ten Commandments, then it seems odd to say that we can have no confidence about God's truth. Indeed, you say they taught you about the Ten Commandments, that we are created equal, that everyone is equally loved, and that we are in a fallen state. It seems to me that you have very many opinions about fundamental truths. I would suggest that we can look further into this same book in which you/they have found these truths.

My grandfather was a humane, humble evangelical bricklayer and preacher in the Nazarene church. He and my grandmother prayed to God on their knees. Their beliefs were filled with an abiding faith, not finely spun logic, that when their time came they would be judged favorably by a just God.

Thank you for sharing your story about your grandparents. They sound like decent people, though I am not entire clear on how this relates to my blog post. I hope that God does indeed judge them favorably, though I hope they will be relying upon the perfect work and atoning sacrifice of Christ and not their own imperfect deeds. I hope they have understood their savior correctly. I hope they had abiding faith in the right object, because "faith" itself is meaningless if it stands alone. It is interesting that John calls the object of our faith the "Logos," from which we get the word "logic." And from my reading of the Logos (Christ) in the Gospels, He was a most logical and intelligent sort of fellow. (Mark 12:13; John 8:4; Luke 5:20, 13:15; Matthew 12:3, 12:11, 12:25, 21:24, 22:23, 22:41)

 
At 10/07/2008 2:55 AM, Blogger Riding the point said...

There are so many wonderfully different flowers in God’s garden.

Thank you for your responses, Paul. The best among us always benefit from intelligent, challenging dialogues.

You were correct, of course, in sensing a “deep disagreement between us.” What I meant by saying that I would have appreciated less of a one-sided argument is that surely, even if you believe the correctness of your arguments, you must, on a workaday basis, hear many atrociously illogical claims being made for the positions you hold. I certainly hear many just as poorly considered arguments for positions that I already believe in from many of my complacent, unjustifiably self-confident friends and acquaintances, all of whom consider themselves quite sophisticated. I am perfectly willing to recognize mutton-headedness, even when the muttonhead is on my side.

You speak with admirable politeness when you say that you are sorry, but that you don’t find it necessary to defend anyone else’s version of the truth. No apology is needed. Your forthrightness is admirable and, actually, although I respect the opinions of others, as I assume you do, I’ll be damned if I will spend an ounce of time or energy defending views that I believe to be erroneous.

I may have spoken in haste about your agenda. I have no right to enter into such presumption. Just as you sensed the basic direction of my arguments that you refer to in your opening statement, however, my fine nose for such things allowed me to detect what some might call your basic underlying assumptions, or what others might refer to as your biases. Having a bias, of course, does not make you wrong. Lord knows, I have plenty of my own. Your suspicions of mine, however, and mine of yours, helps us place all cards on the table.

When you refer to your idea of “historic” Christianity, I find myself pulling up a little abruptly. The historicity of the events portrayed in the great book that we mutually admire are at least open to question and varying interpretations. Much has been clouded over by the mists of time. If we apply the canons of historical method to this problem, as I understand them, and my understanding may be flawed, we can gain only a vexingly incomplete picture of what happened, whether it happened, and to whom, and when. Faith would seem to be a more trustworthy tool in this regard than either pure logic or overheated attempts at reason.

I wish I had your deep and abiding faith in logic. After many years of historical study I must say that we may all hold the capacity for logic, but it must lie deeply buried within us. Deeply. I find chop logic to be much more common.

For example, Plato was a proud, fiercely intellectual master of “logical” argumentation. The straw men that he sets up in his dialogues, however, and the way he chops at them with his logic bores and exasperates, and never convinces. An oh-so-clever man, however! Also, when I note how Aquinas wasted his logical faculties proving how many angels could be balanced on the head of a pin, I can only gasp. The logic is so thin that a child could demolish it. For their part, the supposedly austerely logical Jesuits were no better in their special-pleading defenses of the counter-reformation. In his Institutes, Calvin was even worse. Free will and predestination! And simultaneously! Lord above, deliver me! I could sooner believe that one could pull a bull by the horns if it didn’t have any. Finally, there is the example of the atheist Bertrand Russell, the “logical” Cambridge don, “logically” proving that God is impossible. Oy vey! All of the cocksure aforementioned claimed to be the very paragons of logical method. All of them were full of it, and I don’t mean full of the truth.

Your comments on why we fell from grace carry some weight. In the most commonly accepted view, our fallen state is indeed due to a separation from God. That Eve would gobble that apple, however, and that Adam could be so easily, so willingly inveigled, must reflect some prelapsarian moral and spiritual incapacity, at least a conditio sine qua non, for our fall. The whole question seems to lie wide open and makes me wonder.

I thank you for your kind comments in regard to my grandparents. I’m afraid that my “bias” concerning them is readily apparent. I will fly my love and regard for them like a “freak flag” to my dying day.

To ease your mind, my grandparents did not believe that good works could pave the road to heaven. If they had believed otherwise, my grandpa would have cut a check and handed it to the deacons. John P. and Grace were deep believers that God’s grace was the only path to salvation and that those who enjoyed it could not be plucked from his almighty hand. But my grandpa was not a gambling man. Was he hedging his bets when he almost single-handedly built our church for no pay and much out-of-pocket expense? The scamp in me would believe so. I knew him all too well, however, to seriously entertain the thought. I heard him argue against the good works thesis too many times—indeed, almost as many times as I heard him say Herbert Hoover like he had a gob of rancid bacon in his mouth!

You are correct that my comments regarding them were not d-i-r-e-c-t-l-y germane to the points that you raised in your discussion of fallacies. My discussion of my grandparents was, however, intended to be an intentional revelation of my biases and the emotional foundations of my argument.

I raised the issue of my upbringing so that I could more tangibly illustrate my belief that all attempts at reason and logic lie on a bedrock of emotion. I also believe that this emotional foundation varies from one God’s child to another. In his wisdom, our creator made so many different kinds of flowers for his garden. No amount of logic, no amount of chop logic, no mountain of windy discussion, can irrefutably prove which emotions are correct for them all to hold and which values are verifiably, unchallengeably the ones by which they should live.

This is why your observation is so acute that what I say reveals many fundamental beliefs of my own. My most unshakeable belief, however, is that I cannot demonstrate through logic, rhetoric, or appeals to authority that ANY of my fundamental beliefs are true in an apodictic sense.

Martin Luther is not a particular hero of mine and he was far from being always right. Like Luther, however, each of us can only mark off a patch of our own ground and declare a deeply held, sometimes idiosyncratic approximation of personal truth, a pastiche of reason, unreason, emotion, idealism, selfishness, psychological imbalance, hereditary disposition, and social and historical conditioning: “Here I stand; I can do no otherwise.” Not tidy. Not logical. Honest and admirable.

 
At 10/09/2008 8:56 PM, Blogger Paul said...

RTP,

Sorry, I'm having difficulty getting adequate time for a response. The length is part of the problem, though I'm not blaming you in that regard since my own comment was longish (and often is; I am my own worst enemy). I should be able to get back with you in another day or two. Till then...

 
At 10/11/2008 9:15 PM, Blogger Paul said...

RTP,

You make your case graciously and eloquently, but I hope you'll indulge me if I take issue with some of your points.

You said: When you refer to your idea of “historic” Christianity, I find myself pulling up a little abruptly. The historicity of the events portrayed in the great book that we mutually admire are at least open to question and varying interpretations. Much has been clouded over by the mists of time. If we apply the canons of historical method to this problem, as I understand them, and my understanding may be flawed, we can gain only a vexingly incomplete picture of what happened, whether it happened, and to whom, and when.

Without going into a detailed exposition, I will simply state that it seems to me that the data that we do have (data even affirmed by most liberal scholars) points to the N.T. canon as being the best and earliest witness of what actually happened. Disagreements seem always to rest upon presuppositions relating to anti-supernaturalism, or what God would surely do or not do, or personal distastes toward the claims of these documents.

And as to "varying interpretations," I think far too much has been made over that. There are certainly differences over application, prophecy, and where Scripture seems equivocal, but it should at least say something that the most diverse Christian groups (e.g., Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals, Reformed, Pentecostals) agree on the same historical framework upon which they hang their distinctive doctrines (e.g., Jesus was pre-incarnate, did miracles, died on the cross, rose from the dead, etc.). Liberal Christians, however, diverge at the very root of the tree, and between liberal and conservative is where one finds the largest of "varying interpretations."

If we cannot even agree upon the historical milestones of our faith, as urgently commended to us by the authors of it, then why should we even attend to the book of fiction which they authored? It is not that I "admire" this book as a work of spiritual metaphor and wisdom; it is that I think the authors were actually trying very hard to tell me something profound, which is also true.

Faith would seem to be a more trustworthy tool in this regard than either pure logic or overheated attempts at reason.

But this begs the questions, Faith in what? and, Why faith in that over some other thing? I would image that you think yourself reasonable in the faith of your choice.

I wish I had your deep and abiding faith in logic. After many years of historical study I must say that we may all hold the capacity for logic, but it must lie deeply buried within us. Deeply. I find chop logic to be much more common.

You are absolutely right that it is far more common to see sophistry than careful reasoning. But the fact that a thing is often badly employed does not negate its truth and utility. As much as you question logic's history and the biases we all suffer, you also make use of it in your response to me. Indeed, you must; it is fundamental to our methods of discourse. As much as we may argue over how well we use this tool, in the end we still must use it.

Your comments on why we fell from grace carry some weight. In the most commonly accepted view, our fallen state is indeed due to a separation from God. That Eve would gobble that apple, however, and that Adam could be so easily, so willingly inveigled, must reflect some prelapsarian moral and spiritual incapacity, at least a conditio sine qua non, for our fall. The whole question seems to lie wide open and makes me wonder.

When you began this paragraph I thought you would end with some denial of the biblical account. But then you moved into an understandably debatable issue to which Scripture does not explicitly speak. There is plenty of such food for thought and debate in Scripture, but such differences do not provide warrant for thinking the entire project of Christianity is up for grabs.

But my grandpa was not a gambling man. Was he hedging his bets when he almost single-handedly built our church for no pay and much out-of-pocket expense?

From what you say about him, I am inclined to think it was just the outworking of his genuine faith, not an attempt to buy God's favor. Many accuse Christians of being moral simply to curry God's favor or avoid the flames of hell. I would argue otherwise, and I think your grandfather might agree.

I raised the issue of my upbringing so that I could more tangibly illustrate my belief that all attempts at reason and logic lie on a bedrock of emotion. I also believe that this emotional foundation varies from one God’s child to another. In his wisdom, our creator made so many different kinds of flowers for his garden. No amount of logic, no amount of chop logic, no mountain of windy discussion, can irrefutably prove which emotions are correct for them all to hold and which values are verifiably, unchallengeably the ones by which they should live.

You seem to be saying that because we are emotional and biased creatures we are foiled in our attempts to apprehend truth via logic. Granted, it is a problem. However, you then seem to make the unwarranted conclusion that since emotional humans are driven in different directions, that God is accepting (perhaps even the cause) of our different ideas about Him. I cannot follow you there. Indeed, Scripture makes clear the idea that it is our very rebellion toward our creator that darkens our hearts and has us set up our own idols (false depictions of God) in place of the true and Living God. God may have made us unique, like flowers, but we all must be planted in the same soil, watered by the same H20, and nourished by the same sun. Our differences in looks, cultures, hobbies, and talents are no warrant for thinking that the very nature and will of God is negotiable.

My most unshakeable belief, however, is that I cannot demonstrate through logic, rhetoric, or appeals to authority that ANY of my fundamental beliefs are true in an apodictic sense.

Then we cannot hope to productively communicate over these things, since the urgings of your heart and faith are incommunicable to me, and if you wish to verbalize them, you must employ logic to do so. Indeed, the very words you use are dependent upon logic. When you use a simple word like "I" it is meaningless if you do not affirm the law of non-contradiction; for "I" (when you say it) surely means you and not me or anyone else in the world.

Martin Luther is not a particular hero of mine and he was far from being always right. Like Luther, however, each of us can only mark off a patch of our own ground and declare a deeply held, sometimes idiosyncratic approximation of personal truth, a pastiche of reason, unreason, emotion, idealism, selfishness, psychological imbalance, hereditary disposition, and social and historical conditioning: “Here I stand; I can do no otherwise.” Not tidy. Not logical. Honest and admirable.

I'm not sure how you will judge where Luther has failed to be right without violating your stance of non-dogmatism. To say with confidence that another is wrong one must first have some confidences to the contrary.

If you take Scripture to be a genuine product of God's attempt to reach us, then there is some grounds for confidence that He has made his point. Martin Luther is a hero of mine, and I agree with his quote in full, with which I will end.

"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason, and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me."

 
At 7/09/2014 7:04 AM, OpenID madelynlang469 said...

Really enjoying this discussion from several years ago! Let me just say that this paragraph:
Beyond that, I would remind them who actually did the dirty work. Humans conceived of this and carried it out. They freely chose to do this and delighted in doing so, regardless of the complexities of God's sovereignty in human affairs. Christianity teaches that people are fallen and are guaranteed to sin in large and small ways. It is not a contradiction in the Christian system to find people doing evil things. If it were, then skeptics could complain when people were merely impolite. Just how much evil do they propose that God should allow? Just when it passes a certain threshold? It will all be finished eventually, and justice will be perfectly assessed. If God were to absolutely constrain all things now, then the unbeliever would soon discover that he was riddled with sin that God is patiently suffering. The unbeliever may just as well ask, "Why does got allow me to do evil things?"
...is the most concise argument I have seen on the question of evil. I want to have it at hand for the occasions when it comes up. It is the atheist and the skeptic who bear the responsibility for explaining human evil, because the Bible tells us that's exactly what humans are. It also provides the remedy.

 

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