Monday, April 21, 2008

Give me that Old Time Reason

There is no conflict, we are told, between Faith and Reason. God provides us the power to see His truths through the power of reason as well as through Revelation, we are led to believe. But much like a hastily given campaign promise, this conviction is constantly being hedged and qualified in countless ways, to the point where it is questionable whether those who profess it really believe what they are saying.

A case in point is this missive by John Piper (via EvangelicalOputpost) which casts grave doubts on the capacity of human reason:
As we think seriously about contextualizing the message of the Bible, let’s remember that we must also labor to bring about, in the minds of our listeners, conceptual categories that may be missing from their mental framework. If we only use the thought structures they already have, some crucial biblical truths will remain unintelligible, no matter how much contextualizing we do. This work of concept creation is harder than contextualization, but just as important.

We must pray and preach so that a new mental framework is created for seeing the world. Ultimately, this is not our doing. God must do it. The categories that make the biblical message look foolish are deeply rooted in sinful human nature. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1Corinthians 2:14).

Part of what the Spirit does in overcoming human resistance is to humble us to the point where we can let go of ingrained patterns of thought. But the Spirit does this through preaching and teaching. “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom [that is, through its cherished ways of thinking], it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

I don't think that it's new concepts that are called for in Piper's vision as much as new facts. The existing mental framework for seeing the world has been responsible for the exponential growth in human knowledge over the last 500 years or so. What exactly does he hope to gain by overthrowing it?
Here are a few examples of biblical truths that most fallen minds have no conceptual categories for conceiving. May the Lord raise up witnesses to his truth who don’t distort it by over-zealous contextualizing, but awaken a place for it in converted minds which have new Spirit-created categories.

1. All persons are accountable for their choices, and all their choices are infallibly and decisively ordained by God.

* [He] works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11)
* On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak. (Matthew 12:36)


I agree that I have no way of conceptualizing that a thing and it's opposite are one and the same thing. Humans are accountable for acts that they are powerless to resist doing. Well, actually I am able to conceptualize it, but its along the lines of a Dilbert cartoon.

2. It is not sin in God to will that there be sin

* “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it [the evil acts of Joseph’s brothers] for good. (Genesis 50:20)

He hates sin, but he creates it anyhow. It must be one of those things He loves to hate.

3. What God decrees will come to pass is not always the same as what he commands that we do, and may indeed be the opposite.

* For example, he may command, “Thou shalt not kill,” and decree that his Son be killed: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10).

I'm conceptualizing that God is either schizoid or really, really indecisive.

4. God’s ultimate goal is the exaltation and display of his own glory, and this is at the heart of what it means for him to love us.

* And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” (John 17:5)
* Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory.” (John 17:24)

More Dilbert.

5. Sin is not primarily what hurts man but what belittles God by expressing unbelief or indifference to his superior worth.

* My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)

So God is really, really insecure. Is that it?

6. God is perfectly just and orders the complete destruction of the inhabitants of Canaan.

* Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Genesis 18:25)
* But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes. (Deuteronomy 20:16)

I'm finding it hard to conceptualize the goodness of God in this exercise.

Piper doesn't really want us to re-conceptualize God, he wants us to totally do away with all concepts. Concepts encapsulate rules and relationships that are useful for ordering facts and ideas. The ideas that Piper is presenting aren't bound by any rules or relationships. All concepts, like goodness, free will, or responsibility just fall under the barrage of contradictory dogmas that is his faith. Piper doesn't want open minds, he wants blank slates.

6 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

What he's really doing is weaving a cloth to screen off the sight of the fact that the god of his construct is evil.

Making sense is not part of the program.

April 21, 2008 9:44 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Wow. Where to begin?

Well, for starters,

As we think seriously about contextualizing the message of the Bible ... If we only use the thought structures they already have, some crucial biblical truths will remain unintelligible, no matter how much contextualizing we do. This work of concept creation is harder than contextualization, but just as important.

gives postmodern gibberish a real run for its money.

Then there is the failure to think of possible alternatives:

The categories that make the biblical message look foolish are deeply rooted in sinful human nature.

Perhaps, though, the categories making the biblical message look foolish are rooted in, of all things, the Bible's nature. To contextualize this possibility, in order to aid the work of concept creation, one need do no more than suggest Mr. Piper consider the Quran: no careful reading of it will fail to illuminate, for a non-Muslim, the soup to nuts foolishness therein.

Whole swaths of the Bible give precisely the same impression to the non-Christian. And there is no combination of conceptual categories that will bring relief unless mixed with a great need for wish fulfillment and magical thinking.

Harry, I think it was you that copyrighted the term "Random Noun Generator." (RNG) Mr. Piper must have the 64-bit RNG.

His examples of biblical truths for which the fallen minds lack conceptual categories gave me a sudden, and not particularly pleasant, flashback to my putting paid to Belief.

No matter how many theologians and their RNGs, whether hand-cranked or turbine powered, conceptualizing [all] persons are accountable for their choices, and all their choices are infallibly and decisively ordained by God requires subjecting reason massive dose of chloroform, and succumbing to indoctrination by colon impregnated numbers.

Perhaps most damning, though, is what amounts to the good German defense: He hates sin, but he creates it anyhow. It must be one of those things He loves to hate.

All the more reason for worship, eh?

April 22, 2008 9:17 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Here's a guide for the perplexed: When shopping around for a scripture, try to choose one you don't have to explain away.

I don't know that anybody's already written one like that, but, hey, DIY.

April 23, 2008 2:19 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck, your old pal Berlinski has a new book just out. Best to get some sleep before you tackle it. I hope you like speculative physics.

April 24, 2008 12:12 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think I'll pass, Peter. If this blurb on Amazon is any indication, it's just more ado about nothing:

A secular Jew, Berlinski nonetheless delivers a biting defense of religious thought. An acclaimed author who has spent his career writing about mathematics and the sciences, he turns the scientific community’s cherished skepticism back on itself, daring to ask and answer some rather embarrassing questions:

Has anyone provided a proof of God’s inexistence?
Not even close.

Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here?
Not even close.

Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life?
Not even close.

Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought?
Close enough.

Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral?
Not close enough.

Has secularism in the terrible twentieth century been a force for good?
Not even close to being close.

Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of thought and opinion within the sciences?
Close enough.

Does anything in the sciences or in their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational?
Not even ballpark.

Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt?
Dead on.

Berlinski does not dismiss the achievements of western science. The great physical theories, he observes, are among the treasures of the human race. But they do nothing to answer the questions that religion asks, and they fail to offer a coherent description of the cosmos or the methods by which it might be investigated.


The "fine tuning" argument is just too silly to even answer. It's like noticing that the legs of all animals are somehow just the right length to reach the ground.

Why pay money to ridicule such nonsense when I can do it for free at Joe Carter's blog? Here's an argument against naturalism that Carter thought was persuasive:

If we limit our options to theism and naturalism, it is hard to see how finite consciousness could result from the rearrangement of brute matter; it is easier to see how a Conscious Being could produce finite consciousness since, according to theism, the First Being is Himself conscious. Thus, the theist has no need to explain how consciousness can come from materials bereft of it. Consciousness is there from the beginning.


To put the point differently, in the beginning there were either particles or Reason. If you start with particles and just rearrange them according to physical law, you won't get consciousness. If you start with Reason, you already have consciousness.

April 24, 2008 10:51 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Berlinski does not dismiss the achievements of western science.'

That reminds me of my favorite all-purpose silly anecdote. I have used it dozens of times, including just last week in a column explaining why airlines go broke:

Margaret Fuller's message, through Emerson, to Carlyle: 'Tell Mr. Carlyle that I accept the universe!'

and Carlyle's response: 'She does, does she? By God, she'd better!'

So someone who does not reject the achievements of modern science can publish a book (apparently) dismissing the methods of attaining them?

I'd say people who want to be taken seriously ought to be cautious about admiring Mr. Berlinski.

April 25, 2008 12:10 AM  

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