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Concluding Remarks :: Book Review of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

Is Atheism the same as Humanism?  If not, what is the difference?  Who are the major atheist thinkers of history and what are some of the different approaches or lines of inquiry for studying atheism further?  In our summary of Julian Baggini’s book Atheism, we have already covered how to better define atheism, explored his summary of the case for atheism, examined how both ethics on the one hand, and meaning and purpose on the other, can be integrated into an atheist worldview, looked at how Baggini uses history to advance his case for atheism, summarized how Baggini critiques some of the traditional arguments for the existence of God and why he thinks such arguments and counter arguments are not decisive for either theism or atheism.  Now we will summarize his final remarks before offering an evaluation of his book. 

ImageChapter 7: Conclusion

Baggini closes his book by offering other lines of inquiry for those interested.  For example, he did not have time to explore the peculiar contributions and thoughts of the great thinkers (Hume, Nietzsche, Freud, etc.).  He avoided discussing “the more sophisticated defenses of theistic belief” (Plantinga and Cupitt) because he wanted a less antagonistic approach (108).  The science vs. religion issue is “a little tired” and is discussed many times over, but there are threats to religious belief from science Baggini did not have time to cover (109).  Another area of discussion not treated in this introduction is the claim made by many that religious belief is nonsensical or incoherent (claims brought to public attention by A.J. Ayer).  Staying faithful to his overarching concerns, he does not think such an approach (claiming religious beliefs are “gibberish rather than just false”) is the best way “to engage with religious believers” (109).

Humanism

Baggini admits that the label Humanism (which he defines as “simply atheists who believe in living purposeful and moral lives”) fits his “positive atheism” but would rather stick with the term “atheism” for purposes of clarity.  There are self-proclaimed “Christian humanists” and some atheists avoid the label “humanist” because they think being a member of a humanist organization is a “quasi-religious” endeavor.  Furthermore, there are anthropocentric ideologies that have been associated with humanism, but many atheists (like Baggini) don’t have any interest in glorifying homo sapiens as the superior species.  For these reasons Baggini prefers the word “atheist” over “Humanist” but will admit to being a humanist (with a lower case h).

Final Words

Although “in many ways, the whole purpose of the book has been to dispel this image” of atheism as sinister, the author claims atheism’s true dark side concerns the “scary” thought that no benevolent Father is out there watching over us who is unquestionably good.  This maturity of perspective is the loss of a child-like innocence and false sense of security.  Atheism accepts the harsher realities of life for what they are and does not “seek to shield us from the truth by myth and superstition” (111).

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

In our next post I will offer my own evaluation of Baggini’s book as a whole.  This will include both criticism and laudatory remarks.  I will attempt to answer questions like: Does Baggini do justice to the rational defense for theism?  Do his arguments for why an atheist worldview can fit comfortably with ethics and meaning work?  Is Baggini’s less dogmatic atheism a better alternative to what he calls “militant” atheism?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of his approach?

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Aquinas’s Posture of Humility to the Tradition

Although one of the chief virtues of Aquinas’s Summa is its careful reason and rational consistency, there do seem to be areas of tension in spite of its exceptional logical rigor.  What I mean is this: Thomas has positional tensions, even if they are not necessarily logical tensions.  If one wished to be critical she might consider his explicit reasons for his positional posture as itself illogical inasmuch as he might appear to be somewhat arbitrary (although as I will argue in my conclusion, he is not being arbitrary).

I hope to show that Aquinas’s humility to the Tradition did not entail his absolute rejection of propositions contrary to the Tradition.  Instead, Aquinas sought to simultaneously defend the Tradition while aiming to parse in what senses contrary claims might also be true.  For a brief post, one example will have to suffice from his treatise on Charity (which is love for God as last end).

Proper Objects of Charity: A Positional Tension

Thomas excludes irrational creatures from the list of objects of charity on the basis that they can have no share in the rational life of man, since charity consists in a certain fellowship of life in the enjoyment of God; a life that irrational creatures have no share in.  However, Aquinas allows the body to be considered an object of charity even though he does not consider the body as having the capacity of reason.

Although our bodies are unable to enjoy God by knowing and loving Him, yet by the works which we do through the body, we are able to attain to the perfect knowledge of God.  Hence from the enjoyment in the soul there overflows a certain happiness into the body, viz., the flush of health and incorruption, as Augustine states (Ep. ad Dioscor. cxvii).  Hence, since the body has, in a fashion, a share of happiness, it can be loved with the love of charity.  (ST II-II.25.6.ad.2)

Here Aquinas concedes that the body does not know or love, but the person can come to know and love through the deeds of the body.  The instrumentality of the body in knowing and loving, then, is his basis for allowing the body to be considered an object of charity.  Hence the body, being “used” by the person for serving God, can in this way become an object of charity even though Aquinas does not consider the body to have the capacity of reason, which belongs to the soul.

This is not a logical contradiction, however, since in the same way Aquinas allows for irrational creatures to be objects of charity.

All friendship is based on some fellowship in life; since nothing is so proper to friendship as to live together, as the Philosopher proves (Ethic. viii. 5).  Now irrational creatures can have no fellowship in human life which is regulated by reason.  Hence friendship with irrational creatures is impossible, except metaphorically speaking.  … Nevertheless we can love irrational creatures out of charity, if we regard them as the good things that we desire for others, in so far, to wit, as we wish for their preservation, to God’s honor and man’s use; thus too does God love them out of charity. (ST II-II.25.4)

Thus, while considered from a logical perspective, Aquinas is being quite consistent.  For he affirms that in the most proper sense of the term charity, irrational creatures and the human body cannot be charity’s object since they do not posses the life of reason.  On the other hand, inasmuch as they are instrumental to charity, being used in service to God, they can be considered the objects of charity.

However, when we consider Aquinas from a positional perspective, he has postured himself contrary to the former position (that irrational creatures can be the objects of charity) and in defense of the latter position (that the human body can be the object of charity).  To say it yet another way, although the sense in which irrational creatures and the human body can be considered objects of charity—by reason of their being instrumental to knowing and loving—is the same in both cases, Aquinas postures himself contrary to the former and in defense of the latter in his dialogical structure.

Aquinas’s Posture as Humble, Not Arbitrary 

Is this arbitrary?  It may seem arbitrary to us, but most likely Aquinas postures himself throughout the Summa in such a way as to be defending what he considers to be the sacred Tradition.  Thus, he is trying to give priority to the senses of propositions that he thinks have been intended by the Tradition, while still conceding the same logic when found in other propositions set against the Tradition.

This seems the most satisfying solution to Aquinas’s otherwise arbitrary posture—his posture is one of humility to the Tradition.  Irrational creatures can be the objects of charity in some sense, but this isn’t as important to Aquinas as the fact that the deep fellowship we have with God, as creatures made in his image, is not something irrational creatures can have.  For the same reason the human body can be considered as not the proper object of charity by reason of its lack of the faculty of reason.  But this is not as important to Aquinas as polemicizing against the Manichean pretensions about the body having been created by an evil principle, thus in article five he postures himself as for the human body as a proper object of charity.

Aquinas did not simply reject the truth claim of the Manichean absolutely, however, for he concedes that if we consider the body under the aspect of sin and corruption, it must be loathed as an evil.

Our bodies can be considered in two ways, first, in respect of their nature, secondly, in respect of the corruption of sin and its punishment.  Now the nature of our body was created not by an evil principle, as the Manicheans pretend, but by God.  Hence we can use it for God’s service, according to Rom. vi. 13: Present … your members as instruments of justice unto God.  Consequently, out of the love of charity with which we love God, we ought to love our bodies also; but we ought not to love the evil effects of sin and the corruption of punishment; we ought rather, by the desire of charity, to long for the removal of such things. (ST II-II.25.5)

Aquinas is here trying to both defend the Tradition and also affirm what he sees as the truth in Manicheanism, which often quoted from biblical passages, as in objection 1:

It would seem that a man ought not to love his body out of charity.  For we do not love one with whom we are unwilling to associate.  But those who have charity shun the society of the body, according to Rom vii. 24: Who shall deliver me from teh body of this death? and Philip. i. 23: Having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.  Therefore our bodies are not to be loved out of charity. (ST II-II.25.5.obj.1)

In his response to this objection, Aquinas again draws from his synthetically designed distinction.

The Apostle did not shrink from the society of his body, as regards the nature of the body, in fact in this respect he was loth to be deprived thereof, according to 2 Cor v. 4: We would not be unclothed, but clothed over.  He did, however, wish to escape from the taint of concupiscence, which remains in the body, and from the corruption of the body which weighs down the soul, so as to hinder it from seeing God.  Hence he says expressly: From the body of this death. (ST II-II.25.5.ad.1)

Conclusion

Are we to loathe the body or to love it?  Aquinas says, in a word: both (but in different senses).  This way of approaching theology might have its misfortunes (such as technical language and “death by a thousand distinctions”), but it has even more to recommend it.  By such a synthetic approach, Aquinas has done what so desperately needs imitating in the church today.  He fails to allow heat to block out light.  Instead of letting his zeal polarize truth claims by defending the Christian Tradition as “true” and attacking every other proposition that seems to contradict it as absolutely “false” or “unbiblical,” he was instead careful to affirm all truth he could see in the opposing positions set against his Tradition.

In doing so, he let as much light in as possible while maintaining the humility necessary in defending a Tradition.  If Thomas were to have been so zealous for the Tradition that he failed to look for the truth in other Traditions (which sometimes involved acknowledgment and affirmation of propositions that seemed to be contrary to it), his theological vision would have been myopic and his Summa would not have the synthetic brilliancy that gives it a great deal of its luster and theological durability.

Protestants especially could learn something from Aquinas’s method of synthesis.  It is not by accident that the Catholic Tradition (with Thomas as their leading theologian) has been considered the “both/and” tradition, and Protestants have been considered more of an “either/or” tradition (with Luther and Calvin as the leading theologians).  I would consider Thomas’s method especially resourceful for ecumenical dialogue, which requires a similar kind of humility that we find Aquinas striving for in his Summa.

Book Review: Participatory Biblical Exegesis by Matthew Levering

The following is a book review of: Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 310 pp. For the audio version (which has a more elaborate conclusion) click the play button below or download it to your itunes.  For a PDF version of this book review, click here.

Levering’s proposal in Participatory Biblical Exegesis poignantly addresses what R.W.L. Moberly calls “a curious situation” in Christian biblical exegesis (2). Modern Christian biblical interpretation has heavily relied on historical-critical methods that tend to preclude interpretations that invoke the most important divine and spiritual realities to which the biblical texts refer (2).  Since historical-critical inquiry and discovery has proven fruitful for a fuller understanding of the linear-historical realities of the biblical texts, rather than propose something less than historical-critical methodology, Levering hopes to redeem the valuable finds of historical-critical methodology for Christian interpretation by proposing something more: a broader understanding of history as including also a participatory dimension (1).

His proposal is that history is not merely linear-historical but also metaphysically participatory (finite participation in divine being).  Therefore in order to do justice to the human and historical aspects of exegesis, Levering argues that one must go beyond the linear-historical dynamics of the text to account for the realities beyond the words (the res, 11).  The ultimate argument of the book, then, is about the nature of history (3).

The Advent of Historical Critical Methods

Chapters one and two seek to demonstrate the “gradual displacement” of the patristic-medieval participatory approach to scripture (14). Levering hopes to shine light on exactly why history came to be conceived as purely linear-historical and divine realities as extrinsic.  This metaphysical shift takes place in “the Scotist rupture” of the fourteenth century (19).  Scotus rejected the Platonic understanding of participation and the Aristotelian understanding of ultimate teleology that Christian theology had, up to this point in history, largely appropriated in Christian theology (19).

After locating the origins of the modern understanding of history in medieval nominalism, Levering hopes to show the implications such a view of history has for biblical exegesis.  He does this by looking at how biblical commentary of the same text (John 3:27-36) drastically changes over time, starting with Aquinas’ exegesis that illumines the participatory elements of historical reality (25) and ending with modern modes of biblical exegesis that marginalize all such approaches (53).  For Christian interpreters, “commentaries do not [easily] blend history and theology” because the modern idea of history makes history “exegetically problematic” (52).

Participatory Biblical Exegesis

In chapter three, as Levering begins to offer a vision for participatory biblical exegesis, the real concerns come to the fore as he warns that notions of history and biblical interpretation that do not involve recognition of divine realities are ultimately “anthropocentric (and thus, from a Bible’s perspective, idolatrous)” (64).  Renewing the tradition of patristic medieval participatory biblical exegesis, on the other hand, offers Christian interpreters the sorely needed “theocentric model of biblical interpretation” (64).  Levering marshals the brilliance of St. Augustine’s insight into the nature of teaching: “all teaching is about res, realities” and therefore, “in order to understand true teaching one must learn how to judge the relative importance of various res, so as to be able to get to the heart of the teaching” (65).  To do otherwise would be to cling to “created realities, loving them without reference to their Creator”—a “doomed enterprise” that confuses the means as above the end (65).  (Here is the real heart of Levering’s proposal; the rest of the book is historical/theological/exegetical troubleshooting. In this chapter, most of his ideas find expression.)

The ultimate end of all teaching “aims at building up love of God and neighbor in ecclesial communion” (68). Humility requires that one recognize the “norm of Scriptural reading” of the Body of Christ (68). The scriptures ultimate telos (my word, not his) is to mediate an encounter with God: “’existential’ participation” that amounts to God’s own teaching which “re-orders” one’s loves (69).  This effectively reverses the hermeneutical priority from linear-historical to existential-participatory (69).  The author then further expounds on this key idea through Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture as “transformative sacra doctrina” (71) that must be understood as a unified whole rather than “a mere repository of facts and ideas” (75).

In the second half of chapter three, Levering is forced to take the reader a step back from the euphoric teachings of Augustine and Aquinas to revisit the muddled issues of contemporary biblical interpretation (76).  Levering by then, however, has made his point well: linear-historical tools cannot be employed in a “neutral” fashion (77): they either include or preclude the divine realities as part of real history.  Levering claims not only that a participatory mode of exegesis is necessary for discerning the divine res, but he makes the further claim that this approach is “required to account for even the linear-historical complexity of the biblical texts” (77).  But is such a participatory perspective able to capture fully the “unsystematic” messiness of human authorship and intention?

Levering argues that his approach does not demand “that all biblical authors/redactors, working in various genres, are saying and intending the same thing,” but only “that Scripture’s human authorial teachings and intensions be recognized as belonging to the participatory framework—divine revelation and inspiration—of the Trinitarian doctrina” (80). Problematic passages must be governed by the schema of doctrina, which includes abandoning a particular explanation of any passage “if it be proved with certainty to be false”  (81).  Levering backs this claim by appealing to Dei Verbum’s doctrine of inspiration that claims that Biblical interpretation “seeks salvific truth” (83-84).  This chapter concludes by an affirmation of the “centrality of God the Teacher, in whose teaching exegetes participate” (89).

God as the Teacher

Chapter four is concerned with affirming the necessary locus of receptivity to God the Teacher—the “divinely ordained fellowship” (90).  Here Levering is concerned to show that his proposal is more promising for finding common ground for dialogue with Jewish interpreters than the “comparative textology” of mere historians who ignore the divine and ecclesial aspects of biblical exegesis (96).  The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, in spite of its “good job” in some respects, is troubling on account of its “presumption of a solely linear-historical model” to both Jews and Christians who see Scripture as more than just “ancient texts” (96).  To do justice to real history, including the “communal participatory appropriation” of Scripture, biblical interpretation must heed the communal traditions in which the biblical texts are “operative” (99).  This aspect of historical transmission should distill the fears of “total semantic indeterminacy” (100).  To ignore communal interpretation is fatal because the true meaning of Scripture is “embodied” in this “communal, intellectual, moral, and liturgical” history (104, 102).

Communal Context of Kenotic Love

As we discover in chapter five, for Levering, the communal teaching of the Christian church that sets the context for all exegesis is “kenotic love” that includes “cruciform peace” and is therefore more promising that the Spinozian undermining of ecclesial authority (140).  In the end, Levering comes through with a robustly Christian biblical exegesis that “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in ecclesial communion, understands the fullness of sacred scriptures because it participates in the realities to which they refer—specifically the “Christological plan of human salvation” (143).

Conclusion

Levering’s narrative of the origins of modern notions of history will need to be evaluated by interested historians, and his peculiar Platonic understanding of participation (though nowhere extensively explained) may not be shared by all Christians (although some account of our participation in God is indeed necessary).  Certainly, however, Levering has exposed a naïveté in Christian biblical exegesis by showing the woeful inadequacy of any interpretation that does not take the divine realities into account as real history.  In this respect, his work is a brilliant myth buster, forcibly deconstructing the illusion of neutrality in historical-critical methods that exclude the divine realities in history and perhaps an eye-opener to what should be more obvious to those who cherish this aspect of Scripture above all else.  This insight is especially relevant to those who use the historical-critical method in apologetic postures.

Although Protestants will perhaps wish to dispute his argument for ecclesiologically governed interpretation, I would argue (as a Protestant) that such Protestants engage in performative contradictions anytime they use the word “heretic.” Although Levering’s work still leaves certain questions unanswered, it appears to be more suggestive than comprehensive, inviting other Christians to join him in rethinking an authentically Christian hermeneutical framework that does not shy away from all useful critical tools but keeps the divine realities central to the task of interpretation.

by Bradley R. Cochran

:: Dawkins, Hitchens, and McGrath ::

____________HT: The Hour______________

Shortcut to Converting Atheists to Theism

Vjack at Atheist Revolution gives theists a way to convert atheists to belief in God in his post, How to Make Atheists Believe in God.  Amusing piece worthy of our attention.  Here is an excerpt.  

Let me say at the outset that this is not a challenge, a demand for evidence, a call for miracles, or anything of the sort. I pose no grand test for believers to meet, nor do I intend this as a trap for the dimwitted. There is a very simple way that atheists can be persuaded to believe in god, and I will reveal it in this post. If those who call themselves religious ever want to defeat the big bad atheism once and for all, this is how to do it. Just realize that it will come at a bit of a price.

To persuade an atheist to believe in god, all one has to do is define “god” so broadly that it cannot possibly be doubted. …

The religious could claim every prominent scientist as one of their own if they would merely expand their definition of god and jettison that little matter of the supernatural.

_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_—–____——-__–__-_-_ HT: The Atheist Revolution

__-__–_-__G O D is D E A D

“God is dead.” -Nietzsche

[ … a hundred years later …]

“Nietzsche is dead.” -God

 

———*———*————-*—————Vivere Christus est, et mori lucrum!

Richard Dawkins FAIL ::: The God Debates

Pay particular attention to the question, and how it’s never answered.  Is he saying that modern animals are no longer evolving?  

The Bible = More About G O D than Christ ::: Celucien L. Joseph

This post is dedicated to Celucien L. Joseph, who wrote the 1st ever post dedicated to me on the question: Is the Bible Theocentric or Christocentric?  My answer: In a sense, both.  Ultimately, however, I’m inclined to say it’s theocentric, since the only reason Christ is worshipped in the Bible is because he is believed to actually be … G  O  D.  

The only grounds for being Christocentric in the Bible are based on theocentric presuppositions.  That Christ is  G  O  D  in the flesh, reveals and carries out perfectly the will of  G  O  D, reveals G  O  D more precisely to the people of  G  O  D, is the mediator between  G  O  D  and humanity, reconciles people to  G  O  D  through his incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection, etc. 

Given 1) the comparative amount of literature that focuses on  G  O  D  (Yahweh) vs. the smaller amount of biblical literature that focuses on Christ, and 2) the theocentric grounds for Christocentricity, a better argument can be made that the Bible is ultimately more theocentric than Christocentric.   

__–__–__–__–__–__–__–__-_-_-_-__–__–_-HT: Celucien L. Joseph

Atheism is Not A Religion? • An Atheist Perspective Critiqued

Vjack talks about his trouble with the facebook setup in a post. Here’s an excerpt:

… I was not sure what to make of the “religious views” line on my profile. Coincidentally, a reader e-mailed me and asked my opinion about this very issue just as I was confronting it myself. She did not want to put “atheist” under religion because she recognized that atheism is not a religion and did not want to pretend it was. This led her to think of simply putting “none” in the space. However, she wasn’t sure she liked this idea much better.

You see … vjack does not think of atheism as a religion.  He explains this in another post.

Thus, an atheist is one who does not believe in a god or gods. Note that “one who lacks belief in a god or gods” is not quite the same thing as “one who believes that there are no god or gods.” This distinction may be subtle, but it is important for reasons I will review below. 

As I have stated elsewhere, “Atheism is not a religion, a philosophy, a worldview, or anything similar. It is not the conviction that there are no gods, ghosts, angels, etc.” Rather, atheism simply refers to the lack of theistic belief. A young child or person living in an isolated community who has never heard of any gods is an atheist. In fact, we are all born atheists because we have not encountered any theistic concepts before birth.

… it is critical to recognize that atheism does not involve the assertion of any belief claim. An atheist is simply an individual who do not hold the theistic belief claim (i.e., that god or gods exist). … When the theist says, “God exists,” we are correct to expect evidence in support of this claim. Without such evidence, the claim cannot be accepted on rational grounds. 

But vjack can’t get away that easy.  You don’t escape the worldview nature of atheism just by stating it’s belief negatively as the absence of theism.  I could say that theism is just the absence of belief in atheism.  If vjack is not ready to assert positively that there is no God, god or gods, he is not actually an atheist, but a skeptic—–someone who doesn’t affirm theism but doesn’t leave out the possibility that God, a god, or gods exists either.  Is Vjack really only a skeptic or does he have strong convictions that belief in God, god or gods is irrational, and therefore that God doesn’t exist?  Based on his definition, he only wants to be considered a skeptic.  But if you just read a few posts on his blog, you will see that he thinks people ought to live as if there were no God.  He’s not simply unsure about whether there is or is not a God, he’s working out the implications of hard-atheism.  

Vjack’s way of defining things is not original.  Atheists have long argued for a distinction between hard-atheism and soft-atheism.  Hard-atheism as belief that there is no God, god or gods, and soft-Atheism as belief that there is no apparent rational reason to believe there is a God, god, or gods.  Either way, vjack’s claim that atheism is not a worldview, then, is unfounded.  Atheism actually demands presuppositions about the nature of knowledge (epistemological presuppositions) to even begin to evaluate whether there is or is not any evidence for the existence of God.  Read the last part of that excerpt again.

When the theist says, “God exists,” we are correct to expect evidence in support of this claim. Without such evidence, the claim cannot be accepted on rational grounds. [italics added] 

Epistemological presuppositions about how we ground true knoweledge is at the very heart of worldview theory and determines the outworking of what one accepts as true, false, right or wrong.  It’s the hinge on which one’s worldview turns.   

Therefore, for vjack to claim atheism is not a worldview may be a sly way of dodging theistic rhetoric, but it is also reveals a glaring logical blind spot.  Atheists tend to pride themselves as rational, but as I see it, they make foundational rational mistakes all the time.  This is one of them: Claiming that atheism is not a worldview when in fact, it either demands that one assert there is no God (which results in a different way of viewing the world as not created by God) or that there is no apparent rational reason to believe in God (which demands a non-theistic epistemology, such epistemologies being at the heart of worldview theory).    

———————————–HT: Atheist Revolution——————————–

Audio from The God Debates now Available :::: Wilson & Hitchens

Ok … so I realized I’ve already posted on the Doug Wilson vs. Hitchens debates, but I found a video that’s you-tubable, and a link to the audio.

For the audio, go here and scroll down the media list.

————————————-HT: In The News———————————–

———————————–HT: BLOG and MABLOG————————————

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