December 20, 2007

Sifting Worldviews

I was once engaged in dialog with a thoroughly postmodern fellow who was insistent on the idea that we could not know objective truth, even if it existed. After arguing the case that it was not a hopeless cause, and that, in reality, his entire life depended upon the assumption of its existence, he finally asked me how one could achieve any sort of confidence regarding worldviews and religious truth claims. Here are 7 basic points that I offered for his consideration.

1) Truth sides with the preponderance of facts. The more clear and indisputable the fact the more heavily it may weigh in our consideration. For example, if all discovered ancient manuscripts fundamentally agree with the Bible we have today, then it is more reasonable to believe that Scripture has been faithfully preserved than that (as some skeptics claim) it has been corrupted by countless copies, translations, and tamperings of the church.

2) Truth must be rational. Truth claims must be internally consistent and non-contradictory. Consistency does not establish truth, but its deficiency surely negates it. It may be fashionable to question the law of non-contradiction these days, but even the most anti-rational eastern mystic looks both ways before he crosses the street; for he knows that it is either him or the bus, but not both.

3) At least some aspect of the truth claim must be verifiable. It may not spring forth ex nihilo from the mind of man with no association to concrete reality. Since many claims of truth are falsifiable we may use negation as a tool to lead us to truth via a back door process of elimination. For example, the book of Mormon claims that the American Indians are the descendants of Israel, and if it can be demonstrated that they are actually of northeastern Asian descent, then the credibility of this book is impugned. (Note: this seems to have been done via DNA analysis.)

4) We may derive truth or truth indicators via credible authority. Credibility manifests itself through subject matter expertise, record of accomplishment, and character. For example, if a religion's founder were found to indulge in immoral1 pursuits or made counter-factual claims, then it would be reasonable to suspect the religion itself.

5) Truth works. We must be able to use it effectively, build upon it, or live it out. If we must reach outside of a truth system for practical reasons, then it must be considered false or inadequate. For example, if the moral relativist is compelled to moralize then he has surrendered his position.

6) Truth is justified by its explanatory scope. The explanation that accounts for the greatest number of facts and observations is the most likely to be true. For example, with each new epicycle added, the Ptolemaic model of the universe decreased in credibility.

7) Truth has predictive power. A true proposition will not only have present corroborative evidences, but will successfully identify what may be found in its support in the future. For example, the Big Bang theory of cosmology is so compelling exactly because its many predictions have been proved out one by one, while the theory of evolution should be held in suspicion for quite opposite reasons.

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End notes:

1. I know it may be begging the question to call the founder immoral unless we take into account the standard by which he presumes us to judge morality.

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December 09, 2007

Is the Nicene Creed Biblical?

I was recently dialoging with a liberal Christian who wanted to justify his theological autonomy by pointing out that even conservatives cannot seem to agree with each other. My response was to claim that before one can enter the debate over the fringes and essentials of orthodoxy with Christians of good will, that one must first attend to what they hold in common. I suggested the Nicene Creed as a basic framework of beliefs that was early, broadly affirmed, and is still respected by the most diverse denominations of Christianity. We must start somewhere when attempting to define Christianity. If you cannot put any stakes in the ground, then Christianity is essentially anything you want it to be, which is to say, it is nothing in particular.

As expected, this fellow took exception with the creed and posted his reaction to it on his own blog. I thought it might be worth copying my subsequent response here. The following includes only slight edits of my original reply.

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The first observation I'd make is that this creed seems completely foreign to you. Perhaps it is not, but it should not be alien to any Christian and is actually recited quite often in the liturgies of many denominations, along with the Apostles' Creed and others. Whether one agrees with its content or not, it is a milestone in the theological and liturgical self-understanding of the church. Respect for this creedal statement is still found in the Orthodox Church (Eastern, Russian, American) and the Roman Catholic Church; and even the Magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.) did not take real exception with this creed (or many other things which all share in common).

The council that formulated this creed was the result of a challenge from Arius and his followers, who took Jesus to be a separately created being, like the angels. The Jehovah's Witnesses could be said to be the modern bearers of the Arian position, though not by unbroken succession. This council was the first world church council (other than, perhaps, the Jerusalem council), being attended by the leaders from all the major regions around the empire. To say that it was not representative of mainstream Christianity is to say that something like Gnosticism is the true expression of Christianity. And contrary to what Dan Brown says in The Da Vinci Code, the vote on the divinity of Christ was not "close," nor was it "first proposed" here. All but two of the more than three hundred attendees voted that the Trinitarian view best captured what Scripture and tradition had revealed about the nature of God.

The center of the second line bothers me: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God". That phrase sounds very formal, almost poetic or like a ritual statement. The problem is that I can't find anything even remotely like it in the Bible. Is this a translation error? Or are these simply non-Biblical statements that have crept into the creed?

The language of the creed is designed to express the consensus understanding while also serving as a refutation of the Arian view. So, it is intent to make clear that Jesus is of the same essence/substance as the Father (and Spirit) while also preserving the biblical truth that Jesus proceeds (is eternally begotten) from the Father in some way.

Certainly these words are not lifted from Scripture, but neither are words like monotheism, syncretism, soteriology, and nihilism; yet certain content within Scripture can be rightly described by way of such words. The question is not whether this text is found directly in Scripture; the question is whether or not it follows from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. And the case has well been made that Jesus is described as deity in Scripture: He is ascribed all the attributes of the Father, He exercised all of the Father's prerogatives, and He shares titles which the Father reserved for Himself.

Here and here are some quick Scriptural references for verses making this case for the full deity of Christ, and for a good single verse I would suggest John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

There are a bunch more statements that I can't really quibble with on Biblical grounds, until we get to "one holy catholic and apostolic Church". Is there actually any place in the New Testament which refers to a "catholic" Church?

I am not Roman "Catholic," so you know I would resist their tendency to make this word play to their favor. The Roman "Catholic" Church, as it came to be known, did not even exist at the time of this council. The word "catholic," as we now denote with a small "c", is best interpreted as "general," "universal," or "pertaining to the whole." In the creed it is a recognition that the church was and will be a dispersed and diverse body bound together by a common theology (some of which is captured in this creed). It is a rejection of sectarian, if not cultic, thinking, which was a problem then as it is today.

If the normal designation in the New Testament for the "whole Church" was "holos ekklēsia" why did the writers of the creed choose to used "catholic" instead?

In effect, they did just that. Catholic is from the two root words "kata," meaning pertaining to, or about, and the word "holos," meaning the whole. It is merely done for grammatical purposes I suppose, otherwise it would say, "One Holy whole and apostolic Church."

One final thing worth mentioning is that although the creed refers to "the Scriptures" and to the Holy Spirit speaking via the prophets, at no place does it specify that the canon of Scriptures is complete and infallible. Isn't that a little odd considering that Paul Pruett was trying to argue that this creed should be the litmus test for whether the squishy liberals or the ramrod conservatives were right?

This creed does not mention many things. You cannot take from it that if it does not mention it then they did not believe it. It was primarily designed to address some of the major concerns relating to the nature of God and what He has done for us. Yet, it was from somewhere that they grounded the beliefs contained in this creed: Scripture. And to be so dogmatic as to produce this creed (and its related anathemas) one would expect that this Source would be held in high esteem. It may or may not be true that words like "infallible" are recent inventions, but it should be noted that the early church did not suffer from the same kind of modern skepticism and redaction of the Scriptures which necessitates the naming and declaration of such a doctrine.

When the authors of this creed mention Scripture, they mean something in particular. It is true that the canon was formally declared after the Council of Nicea, but it is not as though the idea of an authoritative list of books was foreign to them at this time. Indeed, as far back as we have approvingly quoted books from the Church Father's pens and explicit lists of inspired writings we can see the outline of the canon as it would come to be known.

The only real contenders for a modified canon were the Gnostics (who are in a whole other camp); yet even they, other than Marcion, agreed to most of the standard books; they simply wanted to add their own unique works into the mix and considered the mainstream canon to be the revelation for the common man, or at least the literal understanding of it to be.

As far as whether the cannon was "complete," the very methodology behind identifying a N.T. book as Scripture precludes such a thing as new books, since inspiration and authority only applied to Jesus and His apostles. A book (beyond the O.T.) was only considered for canon if it had a solid pedigree of apostolic authority. So, for example, a book like Mark could only be justified as Scripture insofar as it could be traced to the oversight of Peter and/or Paul and reliable tradition proved that it had early authorship.

If anything, more books were ultimately included into the canon than what some had argued for. And since this chapter of God's divine plan appears to be settled (as Scripture itself claims), then no further special revelation is expected until Christ comes to claim His church. God's plan has come to fruition in Christ; we are in the Church Age spreading the Good News, a bride awaiting its bridegroom. Any revelation forthcoming can only affirm what has been accomplished or inaugurate the new age to come.

The text of the creed does mention sins, but only in the context of "remission of sins". It does mention judgment, but only in the context of the Last Judgment.

Remission of sin and final judgment certainly implies that there is such a thing as sin to remit or judge. Of course, what qualifies as sin and what we fellow sinners ought to do about the sin in the world is another matter, but Scripture is most emphatic that we should not ignore it or lull the world into a false sense of security regarding it.

It doesn't mention "love" at all. Perhaps the composers of the creed weren't familiar with John 3:16.

Since even most reasonable atheists agree that we should be loving, and that if there is a God that he/she/it would surely be loving, then this idea is not really a controversial doctrine on which the framers thought to make a stand. (If you want a creed with more "love" mentioned in it, here is a more recent one that most of the church would probably give the nod.)

Of course, the word "love" must be defined. Saying that we must love one another and that God loves the world needs an explanation. When John says that "God so loved the world" he spends many chapters explaining just how it is that God expressed that love. The Nicene Creed captures some of that explanation in saying the following:

"Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father."

God does not simply have warm feelings for humanity and look upon our apathy toward Him and His will with a blind eye. He loved us enough to come down among us and make a road home for His fallen creatures. May God grant that we travel it and lead others to do the same!

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December 02, 2007

Evolutionary Morality

Aaron Snell has offered a good hypothetical pushback for the point made in my last post. The question at hand is: How do selfless human virtues like heroism shoehorn into Darwin's theory of survival-of-the-fittest?

I'll begin by restating Aaron's reply, which I call "hypothetical" because he is not advancing it as his own belief.

Humans are social animals, and as such their social interactions are the context in which morality evolved. When practiced in such a social context, altruism has certain social benefits that ensure a better chance of offspring survival. This then translates into an evolved moral impulse.

As for your objection about the converse "selfish streak", I have seen two counter-arguments offered: 1) this is an evolutionary hold-over from our pre-social past; and 2) individuals sometimes benefit from selfishness in certain social situations, which means both can be present in the behavior of a biologically-programmed human animal.

And here are my thoughts:

When was this pre-social time in our past where anti-social behavior was supposed to be advantageous? All creatures are social creatures to some extent. What is it that makes a prior behavior less valuable to survival simply because we become more verbal and intelligent? I think the unintended implication is that humans are now self-conscious and able to know good from evil — that we have risen to some higher metaphysical plane where we are attuned to true virtue. But as another commenter (Duane) points out, in an amoral, purely material world, there is no good and evil or better and worse in the sense we generally mean those words.

If morality is only evolutionary, then there is no higher morality that stands above whatever evolution delivers. This means that the only thing that could be said to be good is whatever lends a survival advantage. "Good" would be, by definition, whatever successful organisms happen to do. However, we find various creatures acting in many ways, some of which we would think of as very "bad" were it imitated by humans. Consequently, there is no reason to even think of our own behaviors, such as heroism, as objectively more virtuous than the diverse behaviors that we see in other successful creatures.

Evolution only has to do with replication and survival. If it could be said to produce morality it would only be related to what is most advantageous to the survival and dominance of any given species, and it does not care about ethics in its pragmatism. For evolution, any means is justified by the ends. And it seems we could get along just as well by evolution's reckoning if we ate our genetically inferior offspring and killed off our elderly once reaching a certain age. This doesn't fit the model of virtue and heroics as we think of it, since we regard some of the most heroic acts to be on behalf of the weak and defenseless.

Mutations do not appear in communities, which could all share in the benefits of cooperation and heroism; they appear in individuals, and if those individuals do not reproduce, then that characteristic will be lost. Even if heroism may add theoretical value to the community, it still has to be established as a characteristic in that community. Those with the strongest heroic traits would seldom manage to pass their genes on, while those in need of rescue would be perhaps more likely to dilute the gene pool.

We tend to think of some behaviors as being morally superior to others, for example, being heroic, practicing equal human rights, and living in peace and harmony with your neighbors are all considered to be good. But this type of environment is not conducive to allowing the superior genes to dominate. Bacteria are supposed to have evolved by means of the more fit organisms crushing out its competition. It could easily be seen as more advantageous to allow weak and helpless victims to die than to allow the virile gene-carriers to lose their lives in the efforts to save them. Practicing equal rights, welfare, pacifism, and heroism does not seem to be consistent with the spirit of evolutionary progress.

To say that some supposedly bad behaviors are a carryover of primitive times only works if we can say that those behaviors are in a different category from our newer behaviors. For example, we might only be aggressive toward others while we are good toward our own offspring and spouse. Perhaps we can develop the new in one area while retaining the old in some other; like a dolphin is supposed to be a land mammal, which retained its old lungs while developing new swimming apparatus. It seems problematic to the theory to have both the new and the old in the same area, but that is exactly what we find in the area of morality. We find loving parents and abusive parents, heroes and cowards, lovers and rapists, pacifists and warmongers, philanthropists and swindlers.

It might make sense to say that morality can be evolving along a continuum, like legs slowly forming into flippers, but that would imply, for morality, that we were fairly consistent in our moral expressions, wherever we happened to be on the scale. Experience shows that humans exhibit moral behavior along every point of the scale, from heroic to monstrous. Some of us still have legs while others have fully developed flippers, so to speak.

Perhaps moral character could be controlled by something like genetic alleles, which determine eye and hair color, among other things. This would imply that there could be "good" people and "bad" people, just like blondes and brunettes, or at least people who are good and bad in certain areas of morality. This seems a very testable notion, since by this reckoning we should expect to find solid and predictable patterns among kin and, especially, identical twins. But I think it has been difficult enough to establish that things like personalities and preferences are determined by genetics at all; and if not by genetics, then we aren't really talking about evolutionary morality in the first place.

Alleles can also be bred out of the genetic stock, so we might expect to see tribes of incorrigibly noble aboriginals or irreformably wicked savages, as we see blue-eyed Scandinavians and dark-skinned Africans, and their children would be expected to be cut from the same cloth. But we seem to find that there is no race whose infants consistently surprise or disappoint us if we adopt them into our "mainstream" society. And if we claim that this is not so then we can be assured of facing charges of racism.

In the end, this is an idea that sounds good in theory, but it turns out to be circular reasoning: we happen to value certain moral behavior and so we imagine that there is an evolutionary advantage for those who practice it. Unfortunately, it begs the question as to the true source of morality, why we should exalt human morality, and why evolution would have us be repulsed by social practices that would actually improve our genetic stock. If, as Tennyson said, nature is red in tooth and claw, then why should we expect to escape the breeding and discipline of our own Mother?

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN