Monday, August 31, 2015

Soul-making theodicy

1. In the past I've defended a supralapsarian theodicy. I still adhere to that, but I'd like to supplement it by considering the soul-making theodicy.  

The basic idea of the supra theodicy is that it's better to be a fallen and redeemed creature than an unfallen creature. But that involves second-order goods, which are contingent on the existence of evil.

There's a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. You can grasp propositions about sin and forgiveness. That, however, is very different from the experience of sin and forgiveness. Existential knowledge is richer than abstract knowledge. And that's germane to a soul-making theodicy.

A supra theodicy has a subjective dimension: the personal experience of divine forgiveness. However, it's more objective than a soul-making theodicy inasmuch as the frame of reference is divine forgiveness. God is the object of forgiveness, while a Christian is the subject of forgiveness. 

By contrast, a soul-making theodicy has a more subjective orientation, inasmuch as it's about the cultivation of certain virtues. Becoming a better person. A wiser person. 

2. The soul-making theodicy was popularized by John Hick. In Augustinian anthropology, Adam and Eve were finished products. They fell from a state of moral perfection. Hick contrasted that with his own position, according to which Adam and Eve were created with the potential for moral growth. They were still in the process of creation. They had the potential for moral maturation. (Mind you, Hick denied the historicity of Adam and Eve.)

There's some truth to this analysis, although it suffers from equivocation. To say unfallen Adam and Eve were morally "perfect" simply means they were sinless. It doesn't mean there was no room for moral improvement. 

Paradoxically, fallen humans can be both better and worse than unfallen humans. Inasmuch as they are sinners, they are worse. Yet Christians can have a moral grace that surpasses the mere sinlessness of Adam and Eve. Saints have virtues that angels lack. 

3. Let's take an example: Suppose you have a family of five. Both parents are social climbers and overachievers. The husband is consumed with career advancement. The wife is a tiger mom. She makes sure the kids are enrolled in all the right student clubs and extracurricular activities that will look good on a college application. The two teenage sons and a daughter are into the usual things kids in their age-bracket are into. At dinner, each member of the family is glued to the display on their smart phone. 

The members of the family aren't Christian. Aren't into meaning-of-life questions. They lead superficial lives. 

One son starts to forget routine things. At first this is amusing. They think he's absent-minded. Distracted by too much multitasking. But he begins to complain about headaches. 

His parents take him to the doctor, and he's diagnosed with brain cancer. Suddenly their priorities come to a screeching halt. 

They now have a sick family member who will just get sicker. Their social world contracts. Their center of gravity shifts. 

Instead of being frivolous and self-absorbed, they make the most of the remaining time with their dying family member. The wrenching experience changes them. Deepens them. Makes them better people. Develops their unrealized moral potential. 

Perhaps, in their distress and despair, they turn to God. They regret the missed opportunities. Regret taking life for granted. Regret taking one another for granted. Regret all the things they should have said and done differently, in retrospect.

That kind of regret can refine character. Moving forward, that prompts them to treat others with greater patience and understanding. 

This is hypothetical, but there are real life examples of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon who exhibit moral heroism in the face of extreme adversity.  

Let's consider some objections to this theodicy:

4. At best, this theodicy can only justify the existence of certain kinds of evil. 

i) However, even if that's the case, that's only a defect on the assumption that a successful theodicy must single-handedly justify the existence of every kind of evil. But what if different kinds of evils lend themselves to different theodicean principles? In that event, a soul-making theodicy can make a necessary contribution. It wasn't meant to cover more than one class of evils. 

ii) In the same vein, the ordeal may benefit the caregiver even if it doesn't benefit the patient. Or it may benefit each in different ways. Some short lives are far more meaningful than some long lives. 

2. Suffering makes some people worse instead of better. Rather than refining them, their character deteriorates under the strain. They become hardened and bitter. 

i) That's a problem for a soul-building theodicy which is predicated on God's omnibenevolence. But if, a la Calvinism, God never intended everyone to benefit from evil, that's not inconsistent with the theodicy.

ii) In addition, the fact that some people fail to take advantage of opportunities for moral improvement doesn't mean the theodicy was a failure. People often blow good opportunities. If there's something blameworthy in that situation, it's not the opportunity but the failure to seize it. 

3. Dire conditions aren't necessary for people to express these virtues.

i) That maybe true, but the question at issue is primarily the cultivation of such virtues, and secondarily the expression of such virtues. Does the ordeal foster such virtues in some people? Virtues they'd never develop in the first place absent the ordeal?  

The virtues were latent, not in the sense that the were there all along, waiting for an opportunity to express themselves, but because the potential was there all along, requiring a stimulus to develop. 

ii) Moreover, this is not about overcoming obstacles and testing yourself against challenges, to build generic traits like strength of character, but specific moral and theological virtues. 

4. Terrible evils aren't necessary to develop these virtues. 

That objection is circular. The philosophers who raise it have never been in a situation that requires moral heroism. Since they lack heroic virtue, they don't value heroic virtue. They have no firsthand standard of comparison. They haven't had that experience. So they lack the capacity to appreciate their moral deficiency in that respect. They don't know what they are missing. 

That's the point of the soul-building theodicy. It's not about abstract knowledge, but the kind of understanding that can only come from personal experience. Like tempered steel, you have to pass through fire to know what it's like and to experience the effect. 

They lack the necessary insight to appreciate the theodicy because they lack the necessary experience which confers that insight. The very type of experience which the theodicy concerns. 

And from I can tell, critics haven't read accounts of Christians like Eric Liddell and Ernest Gordon. For Liddell, it was a tremendous witness to his fellow captives. For Gordon, it was a transformative experience. Other examples include Christians who care for a disabled family member or family member who suffers from a degenerative illness. It taps into unsuspected reservoirs of forbearance and charity.  

5. The theodicy is circular. These virtues are only virtuous in a fallen world. They'd be unnecessary in an unfilled world. They aren't intrinsic virtues. Indeed, isn't the goal to eliminate evil?

i) Once the virtues are developed, it's no longer necessary to have the evils which foster those virtues. But that's like saying the goal of maturation is to outgrow childhood. In a sense, that's true, yet childhood is a necessary preliminary phase. 

ii) In one sense I can't prove to you that these are intrinsic virtues. Moral appeals depend on shared intuitions. That's a limitation of any moral argument.

iii) But consider an illustration. Take teen horror flicks about a group of high school students who are friends. You know, the kind in which everyone was perfect teeth. 

They go on a trip. But things go terribly awry. They find themselves in a situation where I have a better chance of survival if you don't survive. That suddenly becomes the acid test of friendship. Are they just fair-weather friends? Will they leave you behind? Or will they risk their skin to save a friend? 

A crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. To some extent it exposes what was there all along, just beneath the surface. And a prolonged crisis will make people better or worse. 

Suppose these "friends" turn on each other. Desert each other. Save themselves at the expense of one another.

Suppose, in an unfallen world, these people have the same character, only their fair-weather friendship will never be put to the test. But surely there's something defective about their character, even if those virtues are unnecessary in an unfallen world. Surely they'd be better persons for having those virtues, even if they never had the occasion to express them. 

If the absence of those virtues is morally defective in a fallen world, it's morally defective in an unfallen world. They're the same people (hypothetically speaking). How can they be admirable in an unfallen world if their conduct would be deplorable in a fallen world? 

To be good people, they should have it within themselves to rise to the challenge, had the occasion presented itself. If we knew how badly they'd perform in that situation, our opinion of them would plummet. We wouldn't look at them the same way. 

Although this is hypothetical, there are real-world analogues. In the past, and in some parts of the Third World today, it is dangerous to nurse the sick. Some diseases are both contagious and life-threatening. If you care for a sick family member, you run the risk of becoming infected and dying. But as a rule, it would be morally derelict to abandon the ailing family member.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Interventionist theism

Jeff D:

I have trouble seeing much of a difference between Calvinism and deism, functionally. The Calvinist God created the world he created. End of story. How can the Calvinist God be meaningfully described as an "interventionist."
It seems hard for God to intervene in a universe where God knows how the future will unfold is because he predetermined that is the way the future would unfold. What is [he] intervening with, himself?

To some extent I think this is a semantic quibble, although it goes to deep questions concerning the nature of God and causality. Let's begin with some exposition:

i) In mainstream Calvinism, God subsists outside of time and space. 

God has made a physical universe. The physical universe includes physical causes. Natural processes. 

The physical universe is like an automated machine. It does whatever it was programmed to do, no more and no less. The same kind of cause will produce the same kind of effect. 

That's, in part, what we mean by ordinary providence. 

However, the created order is not confined to the physical dimension. There's mental causation. The created order includes finite minds. Some finite minds are discarnate agents (angels) while other finite minds are embodied agents (humans). In addition, reality includes the divine mind, which exists outside the created order.

Unlike physical processes, which are thoughtless, intelligent agents can exercise rational discretion. Moreover, intelligent agents can manipulate a natural process to produce a desired effect that's different than what the natural process would produce absent the intervention of an intelligent agent. 

That can involve mundane things like technology, or supernatural events like miracles. There are basically two kinds of miracles:

a) Classic miracles which circumvent natural processes. In the case of a classic miracle, the effect is not the result of the antecedent state. Rather, it's discontinuous with prior conditions leading up to that event. It has a mental rather than physical cause. It's not the end-result of a preceding chain of events. 

b) Coincidence miracles which utilize natural processes. A coincidence miracle is the coordinated result of independent chains of events converging for the benefit of a particular individual or group. It reflects the discriminating intention of a powerful agent. 

ii) Deism asserts the uniformity of nature. The universe operates according to natural laws. Natural events are law-like in the sense of mechanical regularity. The same kinds of things always happen. A closed system. A seamless causal continuum. 

According to the classic metaphor, we inhabit a clockwork universe. God made the watch, wound it, and set it. Thereafter it runs of its own accord. It requires no maintenance.

Deism regards a miracle as analogous to a mechanic on the night watch who must superintend the machinery in case of malfunction. The mechanic must repair it in case it breaks down.  

Or to continue with the watchmaker metaphor, God must periodically rewind or reset the watch if it runs down, runs fast, or runs slow. But that makes God a poor designer. So goes the argument. 

Deism makes no allowance for supernatural mental causation as an integral element in natural history. 

iii) In theological discourse, "intervention" is a term of art. As I use the term, an interventionist God is a God who works miracles and answers prayer–to take two paradigm examples. A Deist God or noninterventionist deity is a God who does not work miracles or answer prayer. 

Put another way, divine "intervention" is synonymous with God's ongoing involvement in natural history and especially human history. By contrast, a Deist God is uninvolved in the subsequent course of world history. His participation begins and ends with the initial act of creation. (In some versions of Deism, God will judge the wicked when they die). 

There are critics of "interventionist" terminology. They think the terminology has misleading connotations. For instance:

Some biblical fundamentalists think of God as an engineer who designed and created species of animals and plants like a watchmaker designing a watch. Ironically, this God of the world machine has more to do with science than with the bible or traditional Christian doctrines. When the machine model of nature took hold in seventeenth-century science, a new image of God came into being as a supernatural engineer, a machine-maker separate from nature. 
You don’t believe in this kind of God, and neither do I. In traditional Christian theology, God is not a kind of craftsman, or demiurge, who makes the world in the first place and then retires, leaving it to work automatically, except for occasional interventions when he arbitrarily suspends the laws of nature. God is not a demiurge, and not a meddler with machinery. According to the traditional understanding in Christian and other theologies, God is the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. He sustains the world in its existence from moment to moment, and is doing so now.[1]

Problem: "miracle," as used in these controversies, is not a biblical category. The God of the Bible is not a normally absent God who sometimes "intervenes." This God is always present and active, often surprisingly so...The "closed continuum" of cause and effect is a modernist myth. The God who does not "intervene" from outside but is always present and active within the world, sometimes shockingly, may well have been thus active on this occasion.

In English theology, the easy-going pre-Enlightenment assumption that the world of creation gave reliably straightforward witness to a good creator (I cited Bishop Butler above; we might include writers like Joseph Addison, too) had been shaken to the core by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which as Susan Neiman has argued must be seen as one of the proximate causes at least of the Enlightenment revolution.[12] That revolution attempted to solve the problem, as well as several others, by cutting God loose from the world, drawing on the old upstairs/downstairs world of English deism. Religion became the thing that people did with their solitude, a private, inner activity, a secret way of gaining access to the divine rather than either an invocation of the God within nature or a celebration of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. God became an absentee landlord who allowed the tenants pretty much free rein to explore and run the house the way they wanted, provided they checked in with him from time to time to pay the rent (in much middle Anglican worship until the last generation, taking up the collection has been the most overtly sacramental act) and reinforce some basic ground rules (the Ten Commandments, prominently displayed on church walls, and the expectation that bishops and clergy will ‘give a moral lead’ to society). As we know, the absentee landlord quite quickly became an absentee, as in Feuerbach, whom Robinson quotes to this effect (p. 50) without any sense that Feuerbach himself has been subjected to damaging critique. 
My sympathy for his plight has grown over the years as I have lived within the continuing split-level world of much English piety. The word ‘miracle’ is a case in point. Most people, not least in the media, still think of it as meaning an action performed by a distant, remote deity reaching in to the world from outside—just as to many people, still, the word ‘God’ itself conjures up a basically deist image of that kind of a being. I know that in fact that word ‘supernatural’ has a longer history than this and that, for instance, mediaeval theologians were able to use it in such away that it did not carry the baggage of an implied deism or semi-deism [192] (by which I mean the view which, while sharing deism’s gap between God and the world, holds that from time to time this ‘God’ can and does ‘intervene’). But I continue to find that this model dominates UK theological discourse, particularly among those of, or near, Robinson’s generation. Thus, for instance, when I have written about Jesus’ mighty acts, or about the resurrection, I have often been heard to be affirming one kind of post-Enlightenment supernaturalism (with an ‘interventionist’ God) over against one kind of post-Enlightenment naturalism (with a ‘non-interventionist’ God), even though I have frequently and explicitly renounced precisely this distinction and the framework which facilitates it (to the consternation of my ‘supernaturalist’ friends).

iv) There's some truth to these criticisms, but they are confused. 

a) In classical theism, God is an "outside agent." God exists apart from the creation. God exits apart from the space-time continuum. 

b) There are different ways of making something. I can plant an orchard, then abandon the orchard. What the orchard will be like 50 years later has nothing to do with me, beyond my initial contribution. It will be very different than if I tended the orchard on a regular basis.

c) Compare that to a novelist. The novelist exists outside the story. Yet he's involved in every detail of the story. In one respect, he causes everything to happen, from start to finish. The novelist is responsible for everything that's said and done in the course of the story. 

But in another respect, characters drive the course of events. Conversely, characters react to events. Characters within the story drive the plot. They influence other characters. And they themselves are influenced by their circumstances.

You have both primary and secondary causation. 

d) Does the God of Calvinism "intervene"? Depends on what you mean. As I said at the outset, I define an interventionist God as a God who does things like working miracles and answering prayer. That's clearly consistent with Calvinism. 

I don't define an interventionist God as a God who alternates between participation and detachment.  Indeed, the usual rap against Calvinism is not that God is too remote, but that God is too involved. Critics of Calvinism think God ought to be more detached. 

Freewill theists limit divine intervention. Too much intrusion would either infringe on human freedom or trivialize the consequences of free choices. 

Clearly the Calvinist God doesn't intervene in the sense of acting at cross-purposes with his plan. But why should we define divine intervention in that way?

iv) There are, of course, freewill theists who think God intervenes in the sense that he has to jump in every so often to make midcourse corrections lest things get totally out of hand. But that's not how Calvinism uses the term. 

The part I don't really get is that Calvinists insist it is vitally important to point out that God knows all the possible games of chess the two players could have theoretically played. I guess I agree that that is knowledge that God has, but why is that relevant? God knows that it is theoretically possible two people could sit down for chess and just move their knights back and forth over the same spaces until they die of old age. So what? Why does that matter? Like I said, I think the important thing is that God knows ahead of time what game of chess the two players will actually play and the game of chess they would have played if he had not intervened on white's 10th move.

It's relevant for God to have counterfactual knowledge since God must be in a position to know what the possibilities are in order to instantiate a particular set of possibilities in space and time. God made the world by selecting and combining some possibilities to the exclusion of other possibilities. It doesn't a blind draw. 

It amounts to God predetermining every move and pretty much playing chess with himself. When he is intervening, he is intervening with himself because he created a person to act one way, but finds it necessary to nevertheless intervene in time to bring about his predetermined outcomes.

i) One limitation of the chess analogy is that ordinarily, chess pieces are unintelligent. If, however, the chess pieces were rational agents, then you'd have some pieces playing against other pieces. Indeed, the pieces on one side strategize with each other on how to defeat the other side, and vice versa. And as the game progresses, from their perspective (unlike God's), they adapt their strategy to the changing situation. 

ii) The other problem is that Jeff is hung-up on a particular connotation of "intervention."

iii) In addition, a lot depends on the metaphor we use to illustrate the point. If, instead of chess, we use a novel, you could say the novelist is telling himself a story. If, however, the characters were real people, like sentient virtual characters, then they experience the story. They are an audience for the story, like stage actors. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let's build a wall

José Sancho Hernandez, CNN
7:00PM ET. Fri September 25 2015

Emerging for a joint press conference after two days of high-level talks, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and presidential candidate Ted Cruz announced a breakthrough in comprehensive immigration reform. After intense negotiations, both parties agreed to build a wall around Donald Trump. 

Negotiations were deadlocked on how to finance the wall until agreement was reached to pay for it by deducting the required amount from alimony payments to Marla Maples and Ivana Trump.  

One man's scandal is another man's success

Not to excuse Josh Duggar, but if he looked like, say, a youthful Warren Beatty rather than a schlub, he'd come in for very different treatment. If you're plain and plump, and you're caught in sex scandal, a lot of people hold you in contempt. If, however, you're a handsome playboy, many of the same people may even have a sneaking admiration. Image literally has everything to do with how some people evaluate misconduct.

Or take people like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. They aren't even handsome. But they project power. That, combined with their bad boy image and swinger lifestyle makes them objects of vicarious admiration.   

Domestic predator drones

Were the disciples deadbeat dads?

Having been raised by a single mother and a single grandmother in both Mexico and in the United States, I personally know that women can be breadwinners. But I also see how much one income, instead of the income of two or more adults, greatly affected our family. 
The Bad Jesus, pp. 201-203
Heroic Disciples or Deadbeat Dads?
And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men’. And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him (Mk 1.16-20). 
In another instance, Jesus seems to make an equally outrageous demand:
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go’. And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father’. But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead’ (Mt. 8.18-22). 
Imagine if a group of twelve men today left their families to follow a man they just met or barely knew. What sorts of questions would arise? For starters, one might ask what happened to their families? How are these families supposed to make a living after being abandoned by their main or only breadwinners? Who will assume the burden of the burial that the scribe abandoned? Is it morally right for someone to abandon a family in the first place? 
Once one begins to think more seriously about what Jesus wanted the disciples to do, it becomes very clear to anyone who studies basic economics that abandonment would impoverish the corresponding families almost immediately. If that family has infants, then those infants may be left without much food. Any wives are now left more vulnerable. 
Any hired servants may go unpaid. There was seemingly no notice given to every affected family by these disciples, but the anxiety of such an abandonment is hardly ever the subject of any compassion or sympathy by New Testament scholarship. These disciples are never labeled as deadbeat dads, cruel or irresponsible.

The flaws in Hector's analysis are legion:

i) Did Avalos abandon his mother when he studied at Harvard for several years? Was she his roommate in the dorm?

ii) There's a general difference between a parent who deserts growing kids and a grown child who leaves home. As a rule, we don't consider it abandonment when a grown child leaves home. Indeed, there's often a cultural expectation that when kids reach adulthood, they ought to strike out on their own. They weren't supporting their parents–their parents were supporting them. In case their parents need financial support, that involves a grown child who's in a position to send money home because he's financially independent. Because he works outside the home. 

iii) There's nothing in Hector's two prooftexts to indicate the disciples in question were husbands or fathers. 

iv) Before the advent of modern contraception, couples usually had large families. Multiple sons and daughters. Indeed, providing for all of them could be a financial burden. You also had extended families.

Losing one or two sons to the mission field wouldn't ordinarily mean the parents had no other children to fall back on to help with the family business. There were lots of helping hands. 

v) Peter, for one, took his wife along with him when he was on the mission field (1 Cor 9:5). He didn't leave her behind. 

vi) Avalos ignores a key passage in which Jesus commands filial provision for needy parents (Mt 15). 

Likewise, a childless widow would be indigent, which is why Jesus revives the only son of a widow (Lk 7:11-17).

It's not as if Jesus has a policy of leaving needy wives and parents in the lurch.

vii) Mk 1:16-20 isn't a general command to Christian men. It was a timebound command during the life and public ministry of Christ, involving only 12 men. 

viii) Yes, there's a sense in which Mt 8:21-22 is outrageous. It sounds harsh to modern ears, and it would sound even harsher to ancient Jewish ears. The shock value is intentional.

In addition, it reflects the self-importance of Jesus. A demand like that either means he's suffers from delusions of grandeur or else he's God. 

ix) It's unlikely that the man's request is realistic. If his father had just died, he wouldn't be out and about with Jesus. He'd be at home making funeral arrangements. And if his father were dying, he'd be by his bedside, holding vigil–or else he'd ask Jesus to heal his ailing father. So the request is an excuse to procrastinate. 

As for Christ's reply, remember that Jesus often resorts to hyperbole. It's naive to take his reply at face value. It seems doubtful that Jesus is really forbidding him from attending his father's funeral. Rather, it's turning the man's mock piety back on him.

What Sort Of Judges Would Trump Appoint?

See here. Even if his comments cited by Ponnuru aren't representative of what Trump would do in office, why trust him? Why take the risk when such better presidential candidates are available?

Trump supporters often cite illegal immigration as a major, primary, or sole reason to vote for Trump. But think of all the steps needed to get to the point where Trump's position on illegal immigration would be implemented. You have to:

1.) Think he'll get elected, despite his big electability problems.

2.) Think Trump will do what he says he'll do, despite his character problems and long record of inconsistencies.

3.) Think the Republican Congress, who Trump supporters keep denouncing, will pass his immigration plan.

4.) Think the judiciary, including judges appointed by Trump in the future, will refrain from significantly altering his immigration plan once it's enacted.

Let's see if people like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity give prominent attention to the issue Ponnuru has raised, putting it at the top of their radio programs and denouncing Trump in strong terms, as they would if Ponnuru's post were about somebody like Jeb Bush or John Kasich instead. And let's see if Evangelicals and other people supporting Trump do enough research, and have enough discernment, to find information like what Ponnuru writes about and react appropriately to it. Or will they just keep following the lead of Limbaugh, Hannity, et al. so uncritically?

William Lane Craig On Extraordinary Claims, Dwindling Probabilities

Here's the audio from one of William Lane Craig's Defenders classes several years ago (series 1, section 13, part 17), in which he discusses the idea that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and the notion of dwindling probabilities. Both issues are often brought up by skeptics. I've even seen an Eastern Orthodox appeal to the concept of dwindling probabilities to suggest that we can't rely on a historical argument for the canon of scripture. Craig's discussion of dwindling probabilities includes some comments about an exchange he had on the subject with Alvin Plantinga. Craig also brings up some helpful illustrations on both topics, extraordinary claims and dwindling probabilities. A lot of good points are made. I recommend listening to the whole thing. It's only a little more than half an hour long.

How would we ever manage without the Magisterium?