Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Protestant experiment and technology

Most students of history probably know the significance of Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type printing press for the Reformation. Because of it, Protestant theological materials challenging the papacy could be widely disseminated, and had a much greater impact than they would have if they had been restricted to, say, copying the Institutes of the Christian Religion or the Augsburg Confession out by hand.

I’m not the first to raise this connection, but I wonder, if history tends to repeat itself, what the effect of the internet will be. With higher literacy levels in the Western world than at the Protestant Reformation (thanks partly to the Reformation itself), and with mass access to an easily searchable virtually global repository of information (thanks to Google), and the ability now for almost anyone with minimal internet skills to be able to publish their thoughts to that global repository (thanks to blogging and social networking sites), one is led to ask: what effect will the internet have on religion, and specifically the church, in the near future? The hopeful answer would be that increased direct dialogue between people who disagree could lead to eventual consensus (the hope behind all free-speech laws in free societies). The cynical answer would be to point to the inanity of much of the internet, to the degrading of dialogue by “trolls”, and to the even-now-continuing persistence of group-think on the internet, and conclude that the internet will lead to an even greater fragmentation than the Reformation resulted in.

But somehow, in this case, I actually think the hopeful answer is probably closer to the truth. Even granting the trolls and the group-think, the very fact that groups that once could safely ignore each other and write the other into oblivion will now have to face (well, kind of) living, breathing, representatives of the other position means that something new is happening in the world. And I think that’s a good thing.

Calvinism and politics

Sometime in my second-last year of I high school I began to believe in Calvinism. Along with it, I picked up several political opinions that I thought were the consistent outworkings of Calvin’s doctrine of salvation. But now I’m a little skeptical.

Often thinkers have appealed to Calvin’s pessimistic view of human nature as a justification for conservative politics, in the sense of politics which try not to rock the boat too much, try to have many checks and balances, etc.

Now, there are good arguments for those things, but I’m not sure it follows necessarily from Calvin’s view of human nature. For starters, among all the post-Reformation denominations, Calvinism was certainly one of the most radical (alongside non-pacifistic anabaptism). The American revolution was known early on as the “Presbyterian Revolt”, for example. At least for some people, Calvinism meant not conservatism, but radicalism.

Further, the strong postmillennial strain (of which I consider myself a part) of Calvinism would push in the opposite direction: as many historians have suggested, the Enlightenment myth of progress was in many ways a secularized version of the postmillennial hope of the Puritans.

And apart from these things, there is also the much-discussed doctrine of “common grace”, the basic idea being God’s continual work in history outside of the church to restrain human beings from being as evil as they could be.

I think it would be fair to say, then, that Calvinism does not really require a conservative politics in the most literal sense of that term. Though Calvinism does say that, in itself, human nature after the fall is depraved and alienated from God, God’s activity in history, both inside and outside the church, makes it virtually impossible to deduce a political theory from that fact. No prediction can be made, like in Hobbes’ system, because unlike Hobbes’ system, Calvinism is all about God and what he is doing in this world. It can allow for broader thinking than a heel-dragging conservatism, and historically it has.


Just added a link to Steven Wedgeworth’s blog, Wedgewords. It’s an excellent resource for lots of things, but especially for early church and Reformed church history.

Protestantism is to blame

[The popularity of this post led me to reconsider it, and I think there is a significant inaccuracy that has to be taken into account: the Wars of Religion proper were not wars between Protestants (English revolutions are the exception). However, the fragmentation of Protestantism still occurred, and still would be a strong motivator for a philosophical shift toward non-theological views of the world in Protestant nations, so I think there is still a significant truth in my post.]

The historical debate about the genealogy of modern atheism continues amongst historians and theologians, blaming various figures such as Duns Scotus, Francisco Saurez, the deists, René Descartes, and many others. I don’t doubt that some of these figures may have contributed in one way or another, but I remain persuaded, at least for the moment, that the main culprit is really Martin Luther.

Now, I say this as a convinced Protestant. I agree 100% with Luther’s sola scriptura. But I think it was probably the cause of atheism. To boil it down: Luther raised the possibility of a Christianity not founded on Papal (or at least clerical, in Councils) primacy, but based on the individual scholar/Christian reading the scriptures for themselves. Unfortunately, those who agreed with Luther on this starting point failed to present a unified front on several of the important issues in theology and ethics, with the result of the (in)famous fragmentation of Protestantism. This fragmentation became (at least perceived to be; see below) violent with the Wars of Religion, with the result that philosophers started to look for a grounding for politics and ethics outside of any kind of theology. This led to a distinctively modern kind of foundationalism, which, combined with a judgment that there was no good evidence for Christianity, led to atheism.

Now, I think there are two needed qualifications to this thesis. Firstly, I think William Cavanaugh has at least put a big question mark on the general idea that the Wars of Religion was really about, or fought along the lines of religion. More likely it was about the princes trying to get power, and using religious disputes as a justification for their taking more power. Secondly, I doubt there could be a significant explanation of French atheism apart from the apparent friendliness of Catholicism and royal corruption.

But, nevertheless, I think Protestantism has to take a large part of the blame. Because Protestants were unable to secure unity, the state stepped in to do it for us instead. Theologically, this lines up perfectly with Jesus’ statements in his final discourse in John, at least as a mirror-image of what he wanted: Christ said that the world would come to believe based on the unity and love amongst Christians, and so the lack of those things led to the world doing the opposite.

The sad part, bringing things closer to home, is that this failure shows no signs of improving in the near future (witness Dan’s most recent post).

Understanding the OT

Just a quick comment:

Since Marcion, the church as a whole has been very clear that the OT is part of its scripture, and since the Reformation, Protestants have at least tried to understand the OT on its own terms (as opposed to merely allegorizing it). But the success of that attempt has been very uneven, I think most would admit, and certainly at the popular level even the most “bible-centered” evangelicals leave something to be desired in their understanding of the OT. Consider for example: if pressed, I think most evangelicals would probably explain Leviticus as 27 chapters of flowery metaphors for the theory of penal substitution.

In my own personal journey, two men in particular have helped me immensely in growing to understand the OT: James Jordan and Peter Leithart. For quite a while I have linked to Leithart on the sidebar of this blog, but I also just added “Biblical Horizons”, which is a blog associated with the ministry of the same name founded by Jordan. I personally do not think I would be understating it if I called Jordan a genius when it comes to the depth of his knowledge of the OT. For those who read this blog that might care, he is virtually the source of the entire “Federal Vision” (or at least, anything truly distinct about it), though one has to follow the threads back a few years to see that. I highly recommend everything these men have written.

Brand-New 19th Century Atheists

A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog writes:

“Finally, one of the most galling things to me about the modern internet atheists is that in my experience, while they talk a big game about Science and Rationality and Learning, they can be remarkably intellectually unsophisticated.  John Gray hit the nail on the head so hard he blew it apart, I think, when he outlined how the framework behind most of the “New Atheists” is really just a crude mix of vulgar 19th century-quality positivism with some reflexive materialism and shallow humanism thrown in.  They ignore a century of rigorous, lively philosophical debate and criticism on ontology and epistemology, preferring instead the staid certainty of Victorian science.  I don’t mind having my beliefs criticized, but if you can’t at least discuss anything pertaining to the topic since before the Nietzschian turn, go away.”

One of the things that strikes me about this quote is that the seminal event in Western history for ushering the 20th Century – at least in the West – was World War I. If the Nietzschian turn did something to 19th Century humanist and/or rationalist beliefs in the academy, WWI surely impacted the popular social imagination. The war can be pointed to as one of the great destroyers of religious belief in Europe (religious practice actually was on the rise in England in the latter part of the 19th Century – yes in the wake of Darwin). Yet at the same time, such a catastrophic war surely undermined the Victorian faith in reason (and reason as best instantiated in the European races).

If religion had motivated people to die for God and King, surely reason and science had made the dying that much nastier through the innovations of gas, flame-throwers, bomber aircraft, bigger artillery and the like. I would submit that WWI offered an equal rebuke to European notions of religion and science, indeed a rebuke to all myths of Europe as someone superior to the rest of humanity.

The utopian promises held out by the New Atheists that the world can be greatly improved through the abandonment of religion and the taking up of reason and science sounds as enticing as any utopia. But like other earthly attempts at utopia, the historical record has not been pleasant. I can’t believe in the utopia of the New Atheists. Why? To borrow Bertrand Russell’s famous reply to God, not enough evidence!

Science and truth III

John and I have been continuing an old discussion about science, and I thought I would make it it’s own post, since it has been advancing beyond the original discussion in some ways. John’s comments are in normal font, mine are bolded.

1) I am not not trying to incorporate all of reality into what can be called “science”—I think the question I am trying to suggest is, how do you suppose or even propose to talk about the non-physical? You have a problem doing that! But you want to include God into the discussion—a discussion which has stipulated that only physical items are presently allowed into discussion.

I don’t see what the difficulty is talking about the non-physical. We do it every day when we refer to mental states and their effect on our (partly material) actions. It is, of course, difficult to talk about the non-physical in physical terms, but that’s for obvious reasons.

2) the “that-which-is-available-to-the-senses” I intentionally meant as ambiguous—that it, is I want to include both physical entities not directly present to the senses though inferrable from them and physical entities directly present to the senses. There is no reason for me to be specific. And there is no a priori reason I ought to think that that which is inferrable is God over and above a potentially less understood physical entity.

But there’s also no a priori reason to exclude God from being such a factor. This is the primary point of my original post.

I mean, to reduce it to a “naked-eye” brand of sensation, of course, is not what I properly mean either—I expect there to be sensation-excellerants, i.e., telescopes, microscopes, chemical detectors, etc., apparatuses.

Surely the past is not present to the senses but the memories are and that is the past-present link. Now we can quibble all we want about how we really can trust these recollections, so on and so on, but no one is really going to doubt in the main that recollection is an access to the past or that it cannot be trusted in part. I don’t think that any scientist is really being that strict. That is more a philosopher’s issue.

Well, my original post was one about the philosophy of science, so I’m not agreeing to bracket philosophical questions here. And my point about the past being inferred from the present was not really to raise “sceptical” questions; rather, I was trying to point out that, in general, making inferences to causal explanations from sensible data is already part of what we call “science”, so there is no reason to exclude God from being the result of such inferences unless we are assuming God is not a part of the causal nexus of the universe.

“[I]t equates something having no cause with something having a non-physical cause, which is just to assume the non-physical does not exist.”

You’re wrong about this, and I think you’ve misunderstood me, since you would be thereby assuming that I think only physical things exist. But that is not what I am saying, so I must conclude that your reading of me is not as charitable as it could have been. I’ll try to clarify nonetheless.

1) It is not inconsistent to assume that there are things which cannot be spoken about in terms of physicalities (Kant with his things-in-themselves should have taught us that; or even Pierce, who said there was a difference between things that were actual and thing which existed).

2) I would like to see (independent of the very first thing which supposed came into existence) someone attempt to show that something physical can have no cause.

Again, you’re equating something with having no *physical* cause with something having no cause. No creationist, and no intelligent design supporter, is trying to argue physical things have no cause. In fact, it is usually the opposite: it has been secular thinkers who have tried to deny that certain characteristics of the universe (or the universe itself) have causes.

Also: if you admit that the first thing can come into existence without a physical cause, there seems to be no reason (to me, anyway) to assume such a thing could never happen again.

So why I have to conclude that something which cannot be spoken of necessarily cannot exist is beyond me. The point I am making is that once you have restricted the conversation to that which is physical, to introduce into it a non-physical entity is to put forth a nonsensical, non-physical claim—hence something without reason, without meaning *inasmuch as the conversation goes* (not without meaning or reason generally which is how you are interpreting me)—which was supposed to be thereby excluded from the discussion. Hence it does not function as any proper explanation inasmuch as the conversation is concerned—whether or not (and this is the important part) there is an actual referent to the non-physical entity.

I think you’re missing the context of this discussion. My entire point was that we should not limit the conversation to only allowing physical explanations for physical effects, precisely because science should not rule out possible explanations a priori. I agree it would be nonsensical to admit a non-physical cause into a “science” that was defined by only searching for physical causes, but my point is precisely that we should not even be practicing such a “science” in the first place, because it is just prejudicial. It is by definition less likely to get us to the truth, since it rules out possibly true scenarios before it has even started.

God is more than welcome to effect whatsoever he likes, but if he wishes to be part of the spectrum of science (in its modern sense, if it will make you feel better) he must incorporate himself into the physical. In other words, God is irrelevant to the scientific discussion unless he can make himself observable to it.

It only follows that God is actually irrelevant to the search for the true causes of material phenomena (as opposed to the search for only physical causes, regardless of their being the real causes in history) if God is in fact causally irrelevant to all the physical effects in the universe. God does not have to *be* physical to have an effect on the physical, and if God does in fact have a causal relation to some physical effect he is relevant to understanding that fact.

Your argument will have to demonstrate that design is only possible through a designer and is not a fundamental condition of existence. And that I don’t think you can do without bringing God in through the back door. Even if there is an unexplainable complexity to simple structures it doesn’t follow that there is a creator behind them, it may only follow that basic structures have a fundamental complexity to them. It is only when you add the presupposition that ‘it is not possible for there to be basic complexity without the hand of God’ that you’ll reach your conclusion. But then you’ll have to demonstrate that. However at the same time, and luckily for the theist, a basic fundamental complexity does not exclude God either.

Paley’s analogy is not comparable at all (I bring this in because it was of discussion above and in case you wanted to further argue about design). Thinking that there is design in the world is not like finding a watch and wondering, because of its mechanics, about its creator. If you really want a comparable analogue you’ll have to suppose that it would be like the minute hand of a watch thinking that because there is a second hand which moves that the whole thing in which they are contained must have a designer. Of course that doesn’t really work, or certianly not as well. The presupposition that we can observe the world as whole from within it, as though we were without it, is just from the beginning wrongheaded. But it’s what Paley assumed. Humans might design things but our understanding of their being designed is largely because we can point to designers and the things they design, but the universe doesn’t have a designer we can point to (physically speaking) and therefore we cannot really determine whether it is a thing designed. Order in its parts itself will not tell whether the whole thing is ordered or whether order at all is a necessary condition of there being a God. Because if there is no God, and there is order, then order itself must be a fundamental condition of existence.

It seems to me your fundamental point here is that the design inference does not apply to the universe as a whole, though you do not give a reason why it should not (unless you were doing so when you said “but the universe doesn’t have a designer we can point to (physically speaking)”, which again presumes that a cause must be a physical cause to be a sufficient causal explanation). Let me ask this: do you think SETI is based on a fallacy, because it is attempting to infer the existence of non-human intelligence based on the existence of inter-planetary language transmissions? I think most people would find the logic behind SETI’s method to be common-sensical: if something showing evidence of design exists outside of earth, it is highly likely there is extra-terrestrial intelligence; one does not have to know any other characteristics of that intelligence (such as its metaphysical/physical makeup) in order to rightly infer the existence of such intelligence. Now, if you grant SETI is a reasonable endeavour, why would the same intuition not apply on a cosmic scale?

(As a thought experiment,) what if tomorrow an astronomer somehow observed the edges of the universe (just suppose such a thing exists for a moment), and from his observations realized that the entire universe was in the shape of the following statement written in English in three-dimensional cursive script: “Hey, it’s about time you found the edge of the universe.” In such a scenario, would it be reasonable to infer there was a mind who designed the universe? Again, I think the average person would say yes.

Of course, as you pointed out, it is still logically possible that the universe being in such a shape is just a brute fact, which is equivalent to saying it is by chance. Also, it is logically possible that there is some greater impersonal law that necessitated the universe be in such a shape. But again, I think it is obviously logically intuitive that such explanations are less plausible (*not* impossible, which is what you said I would have to argue above) than the design inference. If you want to question the basic intuition of design, I would say, as you do below: “I don’t see how it shouldn’t be included as part of methodology just because it is not completely philosophically tight”. Also, like the principle of induction, we could not function in society without using this inference all the time (imagine if we refused to believe stop signs were in fact designed…).

Well it is not really a history of science that I am so much concerned with which informs what the present *might be* (not must—no scientist is going to concede to your ‘must’) like, inasmuch as it is about past events dictaing how we think about present and future events. Inasmuch, as that is the case I don’t see what the problem is. Sure, quote some version of the problem of induction to me, that’s really not going to assist with how we generally operate. We don’t exclude the problem of induction either! That present events will presumably be like past ones is not an altogether bad idea—it’s essentially what gets me across the street when I am not at the lights. I recognize this could be the time when I do not succeed, but I am still allowing the past to dictate the future in some regard. I don’t see how it shouldn’t be included as part of methodology just because it is not completely philosophically tight. I also think that science does allow also that such a principle will not always follow. So to assume that an explanation could come about for which God is not needed is alright to assume from the fact that similar situations have happened in the past. Though granted, it should not be absolutely expected that it will. I don’t understand why you are disagreeing with me.

I’m disagreeing with you because of your original statement:
And I think the reason there might some reason to exclude God as a possible explanation is…
You’re making the argument that the history of science is a reason to think God is not even a possible explanation for effects in the universe, which is modally speaking the same as saying the history of science probably entails that God must not be a cause. (In a binary situation, where there are only two options, if you say one is not possible you are implying the other is necessary.) My point is that the history of science does not prove that God is not a possible explanation for any physical effect, and so I don’t think it should be part of our scientific methodology to assume every effect must have a non-divine cause. There’s no problem looking for one to some extent, but that doesn’t mean we must never infer that God probably caused something directly.

Let me explain it a little bit differently, perhaps that will help. I think my question is that if it is truly better (from the position of Christianity) for natural phenomena to be explained by recourse to God, why not reject the current ideas concerning thunderstorms, for instance, and take up a causal idea that states that God is angry or bowling or something else? Or why not create explanations for natural phenomenon which have recourse to God though which have been for the most part explained naturally: like God bats the earth around the sun like a tether ball. Why is there a need for God to be an explanation at all?

I think I should clarify my position: I don’t think it is theologically necessary for there to be intra-universal effects which have only God as their cause. I do think, however, that given traditional Christian views of the history of creation (starting with the creation week), we have pretty strong reasons to believe there are some intra-universal effects which do not have strictly natural laws as their cause. For example, if we assume that Adam was created the way Genesis 2 says he was, I think it would be fair to assume there will never be an accurate description of Adam’s origin which is entirely based on the uniform outworking of natural laws (is there really likely to be a natural law that dictated: (1) a pile of dust would form together (2) in the garden of Eden, and that (3) said laws would then somehow (without God’s Spirit being supernaturally involved in anyway) bring that pile of dust to life?). This is not to say there could not be some logically possible natural explanation which could explain the existence of humankind without Genesis being literally true, or without theism being true, but your question here is “why do Christians care so much”, and so perhaps this is part of your answer.

The point is, there is this idea that the less natural phenomena can be explained by God the worse shape theists are in. But, I fundamentally disagree with this (at least inasmuch as Christianity is concerned). I can think that God is the cause of everything without having to believe that individual items in the universal network are caused by him at any given time. Or I can assume that he is the ground of the cause of all things, however, the appearances of which always look as though they were the cause of other natural phenomena. In other words, I can except with little problem that God is truly the cause of every little thing and therefore be consistent with the bible and hence read it just as you do; though on the surface maintain that the causal relations looks quite naturalistic without actually only being so. I can be content with the fact that it is just something I can’t fathom and leave it at that. But you’ll have to assume your way of reading it—in order to exclude mind—is the only possible way to read it. But that is not acceptable by me.

To look at the universe as many Christians do and expect that there have to be or there should be holes in order for God to poke his head through seems to be the product of anxiety not faith. The thing which you defend, if you let go of does not disprove the ground of your belief. I must therefore ask why it is you argue for it. Because you really believe there to be these “scientific peculiarities” which point to God?

Why do I argue for it? Basically because I think it is a good reason for naturalists to give up naturalism. It is basically an external argument focused at unbelievers for me; I do not need it to believe in God’s existence (though it does bolster my faith, which I think is just fine).

Show them no mercy?

Recently I’ve seen the ban on the Canaanites in Joshua brought up in contexts surrounding authority issues in the church, especially as a trump to any idea of infallibility on the part of the scriptures (see here and here for examples).

(Edit: One reader emailed me and suggested I misrepresented Dan’s intention in his post, insofar as Dan was only attempting to criticize Wright’s attempt to deal with the conquest narratives, not pronounce finally on the in/fallibility issue. So, not wanting to misrepresent anyone, I add this criticism of my reading here.)

Now, when it comes to issues of ultimate authority in wordlviews, sometimes arguments between different systems don’t work. For those who, like me, hold to Scripture as an ultimate authority, appeals to emotion are not going to dislodge this commitment. As a last resort, I will simply admit I don’t understand the passage at hand before admitting it is not right to submit to it.

However, today I found what I think is a very plausible response to this particular objection to holding to the comprehensive authority of Scripture. Building on OT scholars like Richard Hess, Paul Copan sums up a very good argument for thinking that the Canaanite conquest is not as disturbing as we might have thought: Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites.

What Pre-Modern Religion Actually Looks Like

When I read about Christian thinkers talking about how we have go back on modernity and return to some kind of more medieval religion I think about how totally unprepared most Western Christians – especially evangelicals – would be for this kind of shift. A friend of mine related a story about how an evangelist in the Middle East was conversing with a Muslim man. The man expressed a desire to convert but told the evangelist he would have to go home and tell his family first. “What if you get hit by a bus?!” or something to that effect was the evangelist’s reply. The man was baffled because, as he saw it, he was the head of his household and he knew he was not making a personal choice but one that would affect his entire family – his religious identity was not personal but familial/communal.

Taylor_Secular_compThis reminded me of my current favourite book, A Secular Age in which Charles Taylor lays out the development of, well, today’s secular age out of medieval Latin Christianity. The portrait of medieval Christianity that Taylor creates is one where religion is experienced – as with virtually all other aspects of identity as part of a community. No one is primarily an individual, rather everyone lives in relationship, everyone is a son or a father or a member of so-and-so parish or working the land of this noble granted by that duke. In this world, everyone’s destiny is seen as linked, failure by all members of the community to partake of this or that religious practice was seen as harming the entire community. 

The mutation and disintegration of many of these forms in what we imagine as the West has, in some cases, been transfered (either by colonialism or Western economic and cultural hegemony) to many parts of the rest of the world. In the case of the Muslim-majority parts of the Middle East though (outside of Turkey possibly) religion is still experienced as part of a community/family and not often individually. Now I suppose that one could press a member of one of these communities to see religion as a purely personal/individual matter and not one of family and community, but this would mean accomplishing a sort of dual conversion. The evangelist (and for these purposes, this could be an evangelist for any religious view) converting someone to the idea of religion-as-personal choice and then converting them to whatever religion was being promoted.

So what we end up with here is a group of Christians in the West pining for the good old pre-modern days of medieval religion while another group of Western Christians abroad try to get people to buy into more modern modes of belief in order to convert them.

Against "Golden Ages"

I feel like one of the things that I often come across is evidence that previous epochs were often not as great as we sometimes think them to be. I feel like I could start cobbling together such posts under a title like the one above. Anyway, cast your mind back to the 1500s, ah, the era into which Shakespeare was born, what a civilized time! Here’s a sample from etiquette books of the 16th Century, as recounted by Charles Taylor:

“Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth. A book of 1558 tells us that it is ‘not a very fine habit’, when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell. People are told not to defecate in public places. Clearly we are in an age whose standards in this regard are far removed from our own.”

They didn’t really show that in Shakespeare in Love or Elizabeth, did they?