Tuesday, October 17, 2017

superstition, fundamentalism, faux science, and Chesterton's "maniac"


a really nice essay by an old buddy, Michael Munger, dealing with religious fundies on the Right and on the Left...

two passages come to mind:
1.) Jesus in Jn 9:3 on contemporary confusion about cause/effect with the blind man
2.) Ezekiel 18:2-4 (a sadly obscure passage) on the misinterpretation of the famous passage in the 10 Commandments about "the sins of the fathers"-- seeing it as a law of the universe, rather than as a general principle



Monday, October 16, 2017

a crazy two weeks

These days, the kids have a "balanced" schedule for K-12. So, we have two-week breaks for Fall, Winter, and Spring-- and thus, a shorter Summer. We just finished our two weeks from Sept 30 thru Oct 15.  It was like the Twilight Zone, so I want to briefly record my thoughts here as a journal of sorts. 

For one thing, Zach turned 19 on Sept 30 and Daniel turned 13 on Oct 15. So, both reached milestone birthdays, causing us to have four teenage boys (young men) at the same time.  

For week 1, Zach went to Florida, starting on his 19th birthday. And while he was on vacation, we were on vacation too-- it was easy, with nothing to worry about. 

In week 2, I had a lot planned. I was speaking in Fort Wayne at a lunch and on the radio on Tuesday. I met an old friend (and  ministry friend of his) in Anderson on Wednesday AM and spoke in Richmond at Wed lunch. Wed PM, I was back home, before Kurt and I spoke to 50-60 Lutheran leaders in three breakout sessions at a regional conference on Thursday. 

Tonia and I had seen a counselor on Monday to tune up our parenting-- and our marriage with respect to our parenting. One of the good things that came from it was a decision to reset our "house rules" and to have a conversation with Zach about being "an adult" in our home. I haven't been parenting him much, but Tonia had been-- or at least, had been perceived that way by Zach. So, on Monday, we laid out our (modest) rules if he wanted to stay with us. And we told him that Tonia wouldn't parent him anymore.

I got home on Wed PM and we were talking to him about his trip to Florida and other things. And then, we found out that he had already quit his (nice) job at Aldi's. (WHAT?!) He then expressed frustration at perceptions of us controlling him. Trying to make a long story short: we reiterated that he was free to move out whenever he wanted. He left that night.

He's been back to the house a few times and everything seems cordial. We think he's looking for another job. He has some money saved up, but not much. He's couch-surfing for now. We'll see what happens over the next few weeks. 

Oh yeah...And Zach brought home a cat on Sunday evening. Uhhh. I was just able to clean up that mess today by giving away the cat to a good home. 

Anyway, pray for us. He's "a good kid" and trying to find his way. He can be impulsive and short-sighted, so who knows? Most of us do stupid stuff in this age range. Hopefully, he'll do limited damage to himself and others. Hopefully, God and others will reach him in this phase-- and he'll learn valuable life lessons. And hopefully, he'll quickly move to a life of (fervent) discipleship with Christ and being increasingly comfortable in the goodness of God's Kingdom. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

review of "Shadow Gods"

A buddy of mine (Ray Rieck) sent me a book to give a quick review (Shadow Gods by Daniel Jones). The book provides an argument against Christianity. 

[UPDATE: In the comments below, I was notified that the author is a deist, not an atheist as I had initially inferred. Looking back, I can see how that's the case-- and how I missed it. The author makes a number of references to atheism-- in particular, early-on, when he's explaining why he wrote the book. In the midst of those references, he says his book is not like "books of this ilk" and so, I assumed a connection to atheism. There are some clues in the text [e.g., p. 54-60's theism arguments as red herrings] and some late references to deism [196, 202]. I should have caught those; mea culpa. In any case, I've adjusted the review in a few places for this revelation.]

The author is generally thoughtful and respectful. He lays out his arguments in a clear and concise manner. He works to narrow the field and avoid tangents; he's careful with his terms; and his case is systematic (at least until he reaches its conclusions in chapter 6). And at 210 pages, with relatively large margins and a good-sized font, it makes for a relatively short read.

Of course, you can probably already see the general flaw and limits of the work. How do you narrow the field so far and draw an airtight set of inferences? How does one write a short book that effectively dismisses something so complicated, subjective, etc.? The answer, of course, is that you can't. Still, the book is worth a read/look for those interested in Christian apologetics. 


In Chapter 1, Jones describes different types of "believers"-- helpful in defining and narrowing the field. In Chapter 2, he starts into his thesis, as implied by the book's title-- that Christians are in Plato's cave, where we confuse the shadows with the related realities. Here, Jones makes a good point about the potential for circularity in Christian belief (p. 37-41). If one already has a belief well in hand, one might use reason to bolster those beliefs and then dismiss reason if it gets in the way. 

Of course, this is a big problem for anybody in any faith system-- whether Christian, Muslim, deist, or atheist; whether climate change, evolutionism, or Progressivism, whether free-marketism, environmentalism, or Statism. Later, Jones warns Christians about putting all of one's intellectual and faith eggs in one basket (152). But of course, this valid concern cuts in all directions, including Jones' views! There's nothing in his point that denies the truth of any belief system. But it is a good and fair warning-- to all of us-- about confirmation bias, the attraction of "just-so stories", and how we can fool ourselves into embracing error.

Jones is critical of William Craig here-- in pointing to the role of the Holy Spirit in theology and practice. This reminded me of Mormonism, which encourages a reliance on the "burning in the bosom". But my sense is that "the burning" is to be relied upon as one first receives the Mormon "revelation", rather than as an on-going, daily reliance on the Holy Spirit-- as prescribed in the New Testament. Of course, the NT also warns about "false spirits", so it's never a matter of simply relying on the Spirit. It's always to be interpreted in light of Scripture, godly counsel, etc.


Jones is careful to provide various applications of the term "faith", including its application to everyday life-- where one must routinely draw inferences, in faith, from limited information (41-43). To his credit, unlike many other atheists, he is not allergic to the term and he doesn't look to reduce it to "blind faith". Ultimately, he wants to describe this sort of faith with another term, to keep his argument cleaner, but I don't see any problem with this move. 

On a related matter, I wasn't clear on what Jones does with subjective evidences. All of us have experienced things in a manner that bolsters our "faith" in one thing or another. Of course, such evidences cannot have direct applicability to others and are of limited indirect use too. But one can't dismiss them either-- in religious faith or all sorts of other areas.

In Chapter 3, Jones is trying to clear the field to get to his primary argument, knocking out "dead ends" in terms of argument and apologetics. For example, he introduces "the problem of evil" and other common complaints about Christian theology. But he dismisses them as unhelpful to making his case-- or even, to making any good case (61-66). By the end of chapter 3, he's narrowed the field to his primary concern: the miraculous claims within Christianity (71). 


In Chapter 4, Jones describes four types of events: mundane, unusual, extraordinary, and outlandish (74-77). Not surprisingly, he believes that Christian belief in the "miraculous" fits in the outlandish category. A few things to say here. First, the distinction between extraordinary (E) and outlandish (O) is key-- and ultimately begs the question. If we assume X is E, we can reasonably believe it, but we would understand why others wouldn't join us. But if we assume X is O, then although logically possible, we probably shouldn't believe X and we will be pitied or scorned by others if we do so.

Second, as an economist, I'm obsessed with choices among alternatives. In Econ101, we talk about "opportunity costs"-- the value of the next-best alternative. In the context of a debate, the question becomes the credibility of the next-best argument. Jones isn't familiar with this line of logic or chooses not to engage it. Whether Christian beliefs about the miraculous are E or O, the question is really whether alternative explanations are even more E or O.

For the deist, if there's a Creator God, then why would it be O or even E to believe that God would intervene on occasion? For the atheist, it turns out that their beliefs about how the universe began, how life began, and especially, how life developed to what we see around us-- are also a series of E's or, to me and most other people, quite O. (The closest Jones comes to addressing this is in his coverage of the ontological argument for the existence of God [53-54].) In a word, if this were the only question at hand, it would take far more faith for me to believe in the atheist's broad narrative about the origins and development of life. Or in a word: you can't complain about my narrative if you're unwilling to lay out your narrative. And if you're narrative is in the E or O category, you'll want to be careful chucking rocks.

In Chapter 5, Jones provides brief arguments on the particulars claims for the miraculous in the Christian faith. But in chapter 6, things start to devolve: he claims that Christians have been fooled (comparing it to being "catfished") and are stuck in "GroupThink". From there, the argument unwinds dramatically in the last three (shorter) chapters. 

After effectively narrowing the field and drawing his inferences, Jones can't resist the temptation to widen the field again, without doing the necessary heavy lifting. (See: p. 176-182's on who was Jesus; and p. 182-186's on what's in the Bible, including his assumptions of very-late dating for the Gospels and an interesting understanding of the literature on "legends". FWIW, he doesn't deal at any length with one of my favorites to any degree-- the extraordinary post-resurrection reaction of the disciples.) The result is careless arguing and even some ad hominem (e.g., p. 196's "asinine"). In a word, the book would have been much better with a tight ending after he makes the rest of his substantive case in chapter 5 or 6.

Two sets of thoughts to close. First, Jones strongly dislikes Lee Strobel's book The Case for Christ. But if Strobel is not a liar (and Jones does not accuse him of this), then Strobel is the very model of what Jones advocates in terms of thinking. If Strobel was a believer writing a book like this, then Jones' critique would hold. But Strobel was firmly entrenched on the path of "skepticism". He was open to listening to people on the other side. He read liberally. He was convinced by the arguments and left his cave. This is exactly what Jones advocates! Even though Jones disagrees with Strobel's conclusion, he is a glowing example of Jones' supposed approach to truth. Jones' failure here is so strange that it necessarily causes one to have less faith in his arguments, credibility, etc.

If one ignores Jones' odd pokes at Strobel, we can recognize that Jones is correct and valuable on this point. Christians should read skeptics and skeptics should read Christian apologetics such as Strobel's Case for Christ. In fact, you can't really call yourself a skeptic unless you exercise your skepticism.

Jones wonders if God exists-- agnosticism and "the maybe game"
 (187-189) and references to deism (196, 202). If it's less outlandish to believe in His existence than not, then you have to wrestle with Christianity's particular revelation. In any case, the skeptic should read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce, while believers should read Jones and others. Those with a particular interest in the miraculous should read Chesterton's Orthodoxy-- particularly "The Paradoxes' and "The Maniac" (which gets to Jones point about super-circular reasoning). And so on. 

Second, Jones seems convinced (and deeply troubled) that "eternal punishing" is the only reasonable manner to interpret the Scriptures on the question of what happens to those who don't want to be with God or who want to justify themselves to God by their works (2, 193-196). Although this is the most popular position within Christian doctrine, the doctrine is far from settled. Moreover, this omission is strange for someone who seems well-read. 

But there are other options here. For one thing, "inclusivism" is a reasonable possibility to expand the field of "those who will be saved"-- to all who are saved by Christ through faith and grace, rather than merely those who have a knowledge of (and faith in) the bearded God-Man from Galilee. More directly, the outcome could easily be "eternal punishment" (instead of "eternal punishing") in some form of "annihilationism". The Scriptures routinely speak to this in a few ways-- most notably, in terms of the "destruction" of the soul (e.g., Mt 10:28). One wonders if this dead end has taken him to the corner of his own cave.

In any case, this is a solid work from a little-known local author on a topic of great importance. If you're into apologetics for theism and particularly Christianity, it's worth a look.