Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Artificial doubt

Sometimes skepticism is overcompensation for fear of motivated reasoning. Ironically, that's just another kind of motivated reasoning:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsPyU4KVGpU

Divine signage

Not to belabor the issue, but one more post on Nabeel. Some Muslims say Allah cursed him with cancer as punishment for his apostasy from Islam. You also have Christians asking why he wasn't healed. 

i) If he died of cancer because Allah cursed him, does that mean that when Muslims die of cancer and other diseases, Allah cursed them?

ii) There's a statistical presumption against miracles in the sense that miracles happen less often than not in response to prayer. Indeed, that's probably a dramatic understatement. That doesn't mean there's a general presumption against miracles. Given the Christian worldview, miracles are inevitable. But there's a statistical presumption against any particular miraculous answer to prayer. Miracles are unpredictable, and I daresay most prayers for miracles go unanswered. So there's nothing surprising about the fact that he wasn't healed. That really doesn't require a special explanation. Countless Christians die of cancer and other diseases, prayer notwithstanding.

iii) However, one can overemphasize the fact that prayers for his healing went unanswered. Although he didn't get the miracle he was asking for (and others on his behalf) in this case, to my knowledge, Nabeel is on record claiming that he had at least 5 miraculous signs in his life. In his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, he recounts a vision and three revelatory dreams that were instrumental in his conversion. 

And after his cancer diagnosis, he said he had a dream of Jesus, which included a sign: 


At the time I took that to be an omen or premonition of his impending death.

Assuming his testimony is truthful, these all had veridical elements. Also, David Wood has vouched for some of the dreams.

My point, then, is this: if we take his word for it, he had five miraculous signs in his life. By contrast, many lifelong Christians have nothing out of the ordinary ever happen to them. 

Expect the Bergoglio papacy to lead to more inquisition and less discussion

the bergoglio inquisition is coming
The Bergoglio Inquisition is coming
Ross Douthat, who considers himself to be among the conservative Roman Catholics, has a pretty good take on what’s happening in the Bergoglio papacy. The down side for Douthat is that his “only serious” solution to what’s happening may only exacerbate the problem that he sees.

Expect the Inquisition” is a headline that probably some editor gave to the column, but the real heart and soul of the Roman Catholic Church is on display, and it shows why this editor is right and Douthat is probably wrong.

In his opening statement, Douthat himself has noticed “In the Catholic Church of Pope Francis, it is dangerous to be too conservative.” He then recounts the story of “a distinguished Catholic philosopher” who was removed from his university position for having “raised questions about ‘Amoris Laetitia’”.

The sniping goes the other way, too. “Meanwhile, in the Catholic Church of Pope Francis it is also dangerous to be too liberal.” He recounts the travails of “Father James Martin”, author of “Building a Bridge” (from the Roman Catholic Church to “the LGBT community”) who was not only disinvited from giving a speech at the “Theological College of the Catholic University of America”, here’s the key: “after an internet campaign by traditionalist priests and laypeople”.

Michael Brown on healing

What was my conclusion after these years of intensive study and prayer? I concluded that healing was God’s ideal will for His obedient children, and that rather than praying, “Lord, if it be Your will to heal,” we should pray with the expectation that it was His will, sometimes even rebuking the sickness at its root.

Since then, have I seen other precious believers die of cancer? Yes, tragically, including some people very close to me, after years of prayer and fasting for their healing.

Have I prayed for blind eyes that were not opened and deaf ears that were not unstopped? Quite a few times, I’m sorry to say.

Yet I still believe the testimony of Scripture, since my theology is based on the Word rather than on personal experience. And when I have experienced miraculous healing in my own life – including from Hepatitis C, apparently contracted when I was a drug user from 1969-1971 but not manifest until the mid-1990’s, after which I was healed – I have been thankful for divine confirmation of the Word.


It sounds pious and faithful to say that when push comes to shove, his theology is based on Scripture rather than experience, but the obvious problem with his dichotomy is that, as he interprets Scripture, Scripture predicts for a particular kind of experience. He thinks Scripture obligates us to expect miraculous answers to prayer. So he can't neatly dichotomize Scripture from experience if, by his own lights, Scripture itself fosters the expectation that we should experience a particular kind of answer when we pray. 

Brown has created a situation in which his interpretation of Scripture is unfalsifiable. If you exercise expectant faith, and the prayer is answered, that confirms your charismatic interpretation–but if you exercise expectant faith and the prayer goes unanswered, somehow that's still consistent with your charismatic interpretation. 

Fact is, even mundane prayer is risky in the sense that when you pray you leave yourself wide open for disappointment. Prayer puts you in a vulnerable position. And if you exercise expectant faith, that aggravates the opportunities for disappointment. How many times can you exercise expectant faith before you lose faith in prayer, because your expectations are so often disappointed? How many times can you get burned before you need a skin graft? To be frank, miraculous intervention is unpredictable and unreliable. That's something you can pray for and hope for, and it's something you ought to pray for, but it's not something you can bank on. More often than not, God does not intercede in tangible, miraculous ways. You queue yourself up for disillusionment and make apostasy more likely if you constantly psyche yourself up for something that rarely if every happens to you. There's nothing impious about striking a balance. Some professing Christians need to lower their expectations before they crash and burn. In reality, it often seems like you're on your own in life. Ordinary providence is the norm. Better get used to it. 

Friday Night Calvinism

In my experience, freewill theists frequently misunderstand what Calvinists mean when they say God does everything for his own glory, and I think some Calvinists (e.g. John Piper) have contributed to that misunderstanding. I've discussed that before. 

But now, with the return of football season, I'll use a sports analogy. Suppose you were looking at the stats of a high school quarterback. In four years, he never scored a single touchdown. For that reason alone, you'd conclude that he's a dismal failure as a quarterback. 

By contrast, his teammates have an impressive record of touchdowns. You wonder why one of them didn't replace him.

On the other hand, he excels at intercepts, blocking, rushing touchdowns, hand-offs, and pass completion. If you were judging him on paper, you'd be puzzled by his uneven performance. How can he be so good at the other stuff, but never score a touchdown? 

Suppose, though, you watch him practice with his team. After a while it becomes apparent that he's a very talented athlete while his teammates are mediocre. If he wanted to, he could just teach them blocking while he scored all the touchdowns. 

It turns out that he's going out of his way to make them look good. Giving them opportunities to shine. They succeed because he's their enabler. His objective is to pass the ball or hand off the ball so that each of them can score touchdowns. 

Despite the fact that it's his teammates who always score the touchdowns, if becomes evident, if you know what to look for, where the real talent is coming from. So the stats are misleading. 

There's a paradoxical sense in which our quarterback glorifies himself by avoiding self-glorification and glorifying his teammates instead. He has the talent, but he diverts his talent and channels his talent into his teammates. He makes them look far better than they really are. His unobtrusive generosity is far more glorious than flaunting his athletic prowess and making himself look good by using his teammates to clear the way. 

Compare that to Phil 2:6-11. Everything redounds to the glory of Christ, but indirectly. He did not seek his own glory, yet his self-abnegation is glorious. He's not the beneficiary of vicarious atonement. Rather, he did that for the benefit of others. Yet he clearly gets all the credit. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Molinists in the Matrix

Had an impromptu debate on Facebook with some freewill theists, two of whom are Molinists:

Calvinism makes God the author of evil, even if it is denied.

How does your position square with passages like this:

For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses (Josh 11:20). 

And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech (Judges 9:23).

If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the Lord to put them to death (1 Sam 2:25).

Absalom and all the men of Israel said, "The advice of Hushai the Arkite is better than that of Ahithophel." For the LORD had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom (2 Sam 17:14).

So the king did not listen to the people, for this turn of events was from the LORD, to fulfill the word the LORD had spoken to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah the Shilonite (1 Kgs 12:15).

19 And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab the king of Israel, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 20 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ 21 And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 22 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets. The Lord has declared disaster concerning you” (2 Chron 18:19-22).

For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (2 Thes 2:11). 

for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled (Rev 17:17).

i) Freewill theists get off on the wrong foot when they cast the issue in terms of "Calvinism makes God the author of evil". If Calvinism is merely repeating and reaffirming what the Bible says, then that's only a problem for Calvinism if Scripture is false.

ii) These passages which attribute a human choice to divine agency. Their choice is said to be the result of God acting on them. 

iii) It's not an incidental consequence of divine action, but the specifically intended consequence.

iv) That eliminates the ultimate sourcehood definition of libertarian freedom, for their choice is said to be the effect of God's prior action.

v) That eliminates the principle of alternate possibilities definition of libertarian freedom, for if their choice is the result of divine agency, then they were in no position to choose contrary to God's instigation. 

vi) Finally, the passages I quote describe God causing them to make evil or self-destructive choices. 

I don't see it even close to being a comparison. If I write the script of a book, I am solely responsible for the actions of the characters. If I create a play where the actors are free but knowing their choices I write the script around it, I am not the direct agent behind their decisions. 

i) Of course, storybook characters lack consciousness. That's not analogous to predestined conscious agents.

ii) In what sense do you think human agents are "free"? If you think the choice could go either way, does that mean their choices are random, like a coin toss? If I flip the coin a minute sooner, it may be heads, and if I flip the coin a minute later, it may be tails?

iii) In Molinism, God is choosing from an array of feasible possible worlds. The humans in those worlds aren't conscious agents. They are merely possible persons or abstract objects. Indeed, Craig is a fictionalist. They only become conscious if God actualizes a possible world. 

You're reading more into the text than is there. Those same passages in your second point are compatible with both strong actualization via determinism and weak actualization via providence arranged according to middle knowledge (incorporation of free will choices).

What an ironic comment considering the fact that you're filtering the text through the colored lens of Plantingian metaphysics, which is totally extraneous to the text. Was the ancient Jewish audience using Plantingian metaphysics as its frame of reference?

You're like a ufologist who construes Ezk 1 as a flying saucer, and when I point out that the ufologist is imposing an extraneous interpretive grid on the text, he counters that Ezk 1 is compatible with the ufological interpretation. 

That's not how exegesis works. The meaning of the text is determined by a frame of reference available to the target audience. 

I never said the Jewish audience was using those frameworks. I said the texts are compatible with both, so they cannot be used to adjudicate the matter.In other words, they are underdeterminative. None of the texts rule out libertarian freedom even under PAP terms or ultimate sourcehood terms.

Christians are reading more into the text than is there. The Incarnation, crucifixion, and Resurrection narratives are compatible with both a real Incarnation, crucifixion, and Resurrection as well as a virtual Incarnation, crucifixion, and Resurrection. The texts are compatible with an external world or a computer simulation, so they cannot be used to adjudicate the matter. In other words, they are underdeterminative. None of the texts rule out the Matrix.

You criticize me for saying that the biblical data is consistent but not conclusive regarding Molinism and then say that texts on the resurrection are compatible with a virtual resurrection. But actually, that's not true. I think the text does require a physicalist reading of the resurrection. Moreover, any computer simulation analogy is parasitic on the physical world for its resources. I don't see why the Bible's being underdeterminative regarding the issue should preclude concluding to Molinism on other grounds. Why think that's the case?

That's confuses the order of being with the order of knowing. Yes, even the Matrix requires a real world with real energy and machinery to run it. The point, though, is the inability of somebody plugged into the Matrix to differentiate appearance from reality. Likewise, your hermeneutic invokes a frame of reference that's entirely extrinsic to the text of Scripture or the background knowledge of the original audience to neutralize the text and tip the scales towards Molinism.

Do you agree that at least God has libertarian freedom?

Depends in part on how your define libertarian freedom. For instance, there's the "mere indeterminist causation" theory of action (whatever that means) as well as the "no causation at all' theory. Here's what a premier freewill theist says:

If it goes to the left, that just happens. If it goes to the right, that just happens…There is no way to make it go one way rather than the other…It is a plausible idea that it is up to an agent what the outcome of a process will be only if the agent is able to arrange things in a way that would make the occurrence of this outcome inevitable and able to arrange things in a way that would make the occurrence of that outcome inevitable. If this plausible idea is right, there would seem to be no possibility of its being [up to the agent] what the outcome of an indeterministic process would be." Peter van Inwagen, Metaphysics (Westview Press, 4th ed., 2015), 278).

God's choices are not caused or determined by anything outside himself. However, God has reasons for his choices. His choices aren't independent of reason, or contrary to rationality. 

I don't think God has the freedom to commit evil. Do you? Moreover, libertarian freedom is often defined as ability to do otherwise in under the same circumstances, but God has no circumstances. Divine freedom is sui generis. 

Why think that God couldn't weakly actualize every creaturely free will choice simply by placing free creatures in certain circumstances?

i) Because I don't grant the premise of your question (i.e. creatures with libertarian freedom).

ii) Because their choices are either uncaused or at least indeterminate, which makes them unpredictable. If their choices are predictable, then they lack the freedom to do otherwise. Conversely, if their choices are uncaused, then they can't be known in advance. 

That's one reason many of the most philosophically astute freewill theists are open theists. 

iii) Because their choices are independent of God, and even independent of their own prior mental states. It's a coin flip. Each coin flip is causally independent of the preceding or succeeding coin flip. 

iv) And finally, because they don't exist. The counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are disconnected from God. 

That's not a problem for Calvinism, where possible worlds are divine ideas, and divine ideas are constitutive. Possible worlds are what is divinely conceivable. God knows his own mind. They are not derivative of what autonomous nonentities would or wouldn't do. 

Debating Molinism is like debating Monadology. A mental construct. No reason to think there's anything in reality corresponding to that fanciful construct. 

A few texts in favor of soft libertarianism: Gen 4:6-7; Deut 30:11-20; Josh 24:14-15, 22; Psalm 119:108-109; Isa 5:3-4; Prov 1:23, 28; Jer 26:2-4; Jer 36:3, 7, 17-20; Ezek 18:21-24, 30-32; Ezek 33:11; Zech 1:2-4; Matt 23:37-39; Acts 5:4; 1 Cor 7:37; 1 Cor 10:13; Rev 2:21.

i) You're confusing material conditionals or material implication (if-then) with libertarian freedom. That's a category mistake.

ii) The fact that we can deliberate about alternate courses of action doesn't imply that those are realistic options. We can imagine many scenarios that we are unable to act on.

iii) Predestination is compatible with hypothetical alternatives. If I did A, B would be the consequence, but if I did C, D would be the consequence. In Calvinism, there are cause-effect relations.

iv) Likewise, predestination is compatible with alternate timelines or possible worlds. In Calvinism, those are representations of God's intellect and power.

Under Calvinism, God is both the necessary and sufficient condition for evil. 

It's not nearly enough for you to simply distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. In addition, you need to explain how that's morally germane. Evidently, you're stipulating a general principle: if X is a necessary but insufficient condition of an evil choice, then exculpates X, but if X is a sufficient condition of an evil choice, then that inculpates X. 

But why should we grant that? Suppose I'm an arms dealer for a Columbian drug cartel. I don't personally murder anyone. I just supply the kingpins and their death squads. So that makes my action a necessary but insufficient condition in the demise of the innocent victims. Does that let me off the hook morally?

As to your analogy, no free-will theist would grant that God is like an arms dealer for the Cartel. That's disanalogous.

It's only disanalogous if you now concede that your distinction between necessary and sufficient conditionality is an unreliable principle in general to inculpate or exculpate an agent. So you must now supply some additional criterion, over and above mere necessary conditionality, for your argument to have any chance of going through.

Simply having children, in and of itself, doesn't determine what choices they will make, one way or another. So at best, the parent only makes it possible for those children to make bad choices - a necessary but insufficient condition. The sufficient condition would be the children's own choices. So imagine that even in spite of teaching the children right from wrong, one of them goes on to become a criminal. Would the parent then be held morally responsible for the actions of the child just for bringing them into the world? No, or course not.

You oversimplified what I said, omitting key variables. Try again. What I actually said was: " if God knows that by creating the world, specific evils will transpire, then he renders their occurrence inevitable by making a world with those foreseeable consequences. The events cannot be otherwise given those combined factors. That follows on Molinism and simple foreknowledge Arminianism alike."

The argument wasn't based on creation alone, but knowing full well all the consequences of one's fiat, if one were to do so, then causing a the initial conditions that eventuate in those foreseeable results.

And to play along with your example, if a couple knew that by having conjugal relations on a particular night, Pol Pot would be conceived, then they would indeed be morally responsible for the dire outcome. 

God is the "ultimate cause" in that He made evil possible. But He didn't actualize it. His agents did. But under Calvinism, Gods decree is what actualized evil. Satan, Adam, and Eve were just doing what God programmed them to do.

Predestination doesn't actualize anything. Predestination is just a plan. The plan is actualized by creation and providence (occasionally by miracles).

Rising sea levels

If the primary objective of Noah's flood was to wipe out the human race, how much dry land would need to be flooded? For instance, consider this map if sea levels rose by about 1500 feet or 0.3 miles (see below)

Depending on the size and distribution of the prediluvian human population, it wouldn't be necessary to flood all the dry land to drown the human race. Moreover, even if some humans could escape to high ground, that doesn't necessarily (or even probably) mean there'd be enough food to live on. Depends on the availability of edible fauna and flora, shelter, firewood, drinking water, weapons for hunting &c., on high ground. 

This map takes for granted the current land distribution. If you think the prediluvian earth was different in that respect, then we have to make adjustments for that hypothetical variable. 

Suppose, before the flood, there were massive polar ice caps…which melted. 




Monday, September 18, 2017

A Quick Argument Against Libertarian Calvinism

http://www.proginosko.com/2017/09/a-quick-argument-against-libertarian-calvinism/

He descended into hell

http://journal.rts.edu/article/he-descended-into-hell/

Ready To Run

Ravi Zacharias has a piece in the Washington Post about Nabeel Qureshi. In the opening of the article, Zacharias refers to a characteristic Qureshi had that few other Christians have in this culture:

The first time I saw him, he sat at a table across from me, one of his legs constantly moving almost subconsciously, as though he was warming up for a run. It was a habit of his restless disposition to stand and gallop. I asked if we could talk about his mission in life. He joined me in the back seat of the car, that leg still moving.

That was Nabeel Qureshi. He hated sitting still. He was a man with a mission, ready to run.

Mere Protestantism


I'll comment on this:


I guess the best thing that can be said for it is the pertinent reminder that the Reformation isn't over. It says a lot of things I can agree with. It has some good signatories, as well as some not so good signatories. However, I won't be signing "A Reforming Catholic Confession". I'll begin with two lesser objections:

i) Jerry Walls cochaired the drafting committee. Jerry plays a Julius Kelp/Buddy Love character, wherein he can instantly transform from a militant anti-Calvinist to "the most ecumenical man in the room" and back again. The makeup is impressive, yet the actor underneath the magnanimous makeup isn't the ecumenist, but the militant anti-Calvinist. Sorry, but I can't exercise the willing suspension of disbelief to take his performance seriously. 

ii) The document is terribly redundant inasmuch as there's already plethora of "mere Protestant" creeds in circulation. Every evangelical seminary, college, denomination, and parachurch ministry has a generic evangelical statement of faith. 

However, I wouldn't say (i-ii) are deal-breakers. Moving along:

He will judge the world, consigning any who persist in unbelief to an everlasting fate apart from him, where his life and light are no more. 

Notice what that doesn't say. No mention of "eternal misery" or "everlasting conscious punishment". It's worded in such a way that an annihilationist can sign it. And that's probably intentional.

Perhaps a supporter of the "mere Protestant" confession will say it doesn't deny everlasting conscious punishment. 

Yet creeds are equally important for what they exclude as well as what they include. That's a basic function of creeds. To draw boundaries. To rule some positions out of bounds. 

And needless to say, it is equally silent on Purgatory, which is making a comeback thanks the cochairman of the drafting committee (Jerry Walls). 

What about penal substitution? That, too, is passed over in silence. How mere can you get? 

By the same token, this "mere Protestant" confession is silent on open theism. A "mere Protestant" confession that leaves the door open for open theism, annihilationism, and Purgatory is too mere for me. 

That Protestants are divided is equally obvious and, given our Lord’s prayer for unity (“that they may be one” – John 17:11), even more grievous.

i) Sigh. By that logic, the Son's prayer has gone unanswered for 2000 years. Even if, after 2000 years, the Father finally got around to granting the Son's petition, isn't that like a health insurance company authorizing treatment a week after the patient died? 

ii) Didn't Jesus say the Father always hears him (Jn 11:41-42). So shouldn't we believe that the Father already granted the Son's petition? Indeed, that the Father has been continuously granting that petition, throughout the course of church history–from the inception up to the present–until the Parousia? 

In that event, we should see in church history an answer to that prayer. If we fail to see that, it must be because we're looking for the wrong thing. 

What kind of unity is Jesus referring to? I think the best explanation is that if believers are in fellowship with the Triune God, then believers are thereby in fellowship with one another (1 Jn 1:3,6-7).

Our reforming catholic confession sets forth the catholic substance of the faith (the consensual tradition worked out over the first few centuries of church history about the triune God) according to the Protestant principles of the faith (sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide).

i) Freewill theists don't believe in sola gratia. They have a synergistic soteriology.

ii) What about Protestants who reject the classic Protestant (e.g. Reformed or Lutheran) view of justification in favor of something like the New Perspective on Paul? Or the more recent position of John Barclay? 

That these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which some among us call “sacraments,” are bound to the Word by the Spirit as visible words proclaiming the promise of the gospel, and thus become places where recipients encounter the Word again. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper communicate life in Christ to the faithful, confirming them in their assurance that Christ, the gift of God for the people of God, is indeed “for us and our salvation” and nurturing them in their faith.

I think the sacraments are simply pictures. 

the Spirit proceeded to guide (and continues to guide) the church into a right understanding of these foundational texts (John 15:26; 16:13).

In a sense this is the right doctrine from the wrong texts. 

i) In context, Jn 15:26 & 16:13 isn't a promise to "the church". 

ii) There is a sense in which God continues to guide "the church". God gives teachers to the church. And God preserves the elect. That doesn't render them infallible, but to keep them faithful, God prevents them from straying too far. 

Yet, given the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus, individuals and churches do well to follow the example of the Reformers and accept as faithful interpretations and entailments of Scripture the decisions of the councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) concerning the nature of the Triune God and Jesus Christ.

"the weight of orthodox judgment and catholic consensus" is not a reliable criterion. That's an intellectual shortcut, and the appeal amounts to a circular argument. By definition, "orthodox judgement" is orthodox, but that tautology is useless in ascertaining orthodoxy. You already need a preconception of orthodoxy to recognize examples of orthodoxy in church history. 

Moreover, "catholic consensus" is a very small sample. Most Christians were uneducated back then. They were in no position to exercise independent judgment. 

One set of Christians is not the doctrinal benchmark for another set of Christians.  Divine revelation is the only standard of orthodox. The onus is not on modern-day Christians to conform their beliefs to a "catholic consensus". Rather, the onus is on a "catholic consensus" to match up with divine revelation. 

Interpretive levels

This is a prequel to a post on "A Reforming Catholic Confession". As I was thinking about it, it raised a number of preliminary questions.

i) Because Christianity is a bookish religion, centered on biblical revelation, hermeneutics is a central feature of Christianity. The interpretation of a text. That, in turn, gives rise to creeds. And, of course, that continues the interpretive process inasmuch as creeds must be interpreted. However, interpretation is a broad concept:

i) A. L. Rowse was an interpreter of Shakespeare. Likewise, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were interpreters of Shakespeare. Yet actors are interpreters in a different sense than commentators. The task of a commentator is to ascertain the original meaning of the text. 

By contrast, the task of an actor is to project the psychology of the character. To some degree an actor tries to get inside the role, to understand the part, but acting isn't exegesis in the usual sense.

ii) It can be interesting to watch different actors play the same role, in Shakespeare, or Sherlock Holmes, or James Bond, or whatever, precisely because different actors interpret the same role differently. That can be a virtue in acting, but that's not necessarily a virtue in exegesis, since the object of exegesis is not variety, but the correct interpretation. 

iii) And, of course, there are different kinds of acting. Some actors are more external. Some actors disappear into the part. They are very different from one role to the next. Other actors have a consistent persona which they bring to every part. People like to see the image they project. For some performers, the role is a vehicle for the actor while for other performers, the actor is a vehicle for the role.

iv) When playing a fictional character, the text or script may be the only standard of comparison. But when playing a historical figure, the real person is another standard of comparison. Some actors read biographies or autobiographies about a historical character to approximate what he was really like. But some actors don't. George C. Scott was the same in every role. He didn't imitate Patton. Rather, he played the role as if Patton was George C. Scott! Another actor might do it in reverse.

iv) Sometimes a role is written with a particular performer in mind. Peter Grimes was written for Peter Pears. Later, Jon Vickers reprised the role. Vickers had a much greater dynamic and emotional range than Pears. Even though it wasn't what Benjamin Britten intended, it's a memorable performance that tends to eclipse the singer for whom the role was tailor-made.

v) By the same token, acting is sometimes subversive. When Alec Guinness played George Smiley, he took the role in a different direction than the author envisioned. Guinness is a sympathetic actor who made Smiley a more sympathetic character than the literary exemplar. And it's been said that his performance influenced le Carré to rewrite Smiley to be more like Guinness!  

vi) Many movies are cinematic adaptations of novels. Translating a novel into the cinematic medium is, in itself, an interpretive act. In addition to the actor's interpretation there's the director's interpretation and/or the screenwriter's. And we allow for a degree of artistic license when adapting a novel to the screen. 

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is his personal interpretation of the Passion accounts in the Gospels. And James Caviezel adds his own interpretive layer. 

vii) When actors and directors are interviewed, they are often asked what the movie means or how they prepared for the role. A director is treated as an authoritative interpreter of his own films. 

On the other hand, if you ask David Lynch what Mulholland Dr. means, he might be unable to explain it. Lynch draws heavily on the subconscious. His work isn't analytical in the way many directors are. Mulholland Dr. is like a dream. It has the obscure symbolism of dreams. 

viii) A painter is an interpreter, but what a painting means is different from what a text means. Monet was more of a landscape painter while Renoir was more of a portrait painter, but they sometimes painted the same scene, which makes it interesting to compare and contrast their respective approaches.

ix) There's a distinction between what a text or movie (or painting) means, and what it means to the reader or viewer. It may have a personal significance that's independent of what it objectively means. It may trigger personal associations. 

When I come back to a movie or TV drama, watching it again may remind me of when I first saw it. It takes me back to a particular time and place. Not just the time and place of the movie, but the time and place of the viewer. What was happening in my own life. 

Or a particular scene may have an allegorical significance for me, because I compare it to something in my own experience. That idiosyncratic interpretation isn't what the director intended. He knows nothing about any particular member of the audience. 

Take the opening scene of Mulholland Dr. Floating in darkness, to the haunting, ominous, tragic tune of Badalamenti, with its descending, minor-key scales, the limo cruises down a long lonely road, with glowing taillights, intercut with the city lights of Los Angeles, in vast anonymity. For me that evokes a host of associations that are a code language for particular incidents in my own life. 

x) One function of creeds is to establish a doctrinal standard. A seminary or denomination may require an ordinand or job applicant to subscribe to a particular creed. 

In some denominations, corporate recitation of a creed is part of the liturgy. In my opinion, it's permissible for a parishioner to exercise mental reservations when reciting a creed, if he disagrees with an article of the creed, whereas it would be deceptive for an ordinand or church officer or seminary professor to do so. As a parishioner, I'm at liberty to impute a private meaning to an article of the creed. If I disagree with what "communion of the saints" probably meant, I can mentally substitute my own meaning. 

For exegetical purposes, original intent is generally normative, but how we appropriate a text is different. I'm not bound by what the director had in mind. I can find it significant for my own reasons.

Religious pedigree

This post is occasioned by the question of whether Ahmadis are real Muslims. Because the late Nabeel Qureshi was the most high-profile Muslim convert to Christianity, Muslim apologists attempt to discredit his witness by claiming that Admadis aren't real Muslims. 

Since I'm not Muslim, I don't have a personal stake in that debate. But here's a defense of the Muslim pedigree of the Ahmadiyya sect.


This also goes to the question of whether Islam is essentially violent. Is the jihadist tradition baked in the cake? 

But it goes to larger questions, like Newman's theory of development. How do we distinguish authentic developments from inauthentic developments? 

From what I can tell, the Ahmadiyya sect is a variation or extension of Shia Islam, with its doctrine of the hidden Imam or occultation of the Madhi. But that just pushes the question back a step. Is Shia Islam an authentic or inauthentic development? When I read Muslim writers like Henry Corbin, René Guénon, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, with their esotericism and Neo-Platonism, a chain of intermediary Intelligences, and other paraphernalia, that's far removed from the provincial outlook of the 7C desert founder. Yet Ibn Sina was very eclectic. Conversely, Ibn Rushd was passionately Aristotelian. Are these authentic or inauthentic developments?  

Are members of the LDS the true Mormons, or members of the RLDS? 

Which is more authentic: Theravada Buddhism or Mahayana Buddhism? In Buddhist tradition, Gautama undergoes legendary embellishment, morphing into a surreal figure that's far removed from the historical Buddha. 

What about Hinduism? That's such a mishmash. 

There are different ways to analyze the question:

1. One criterion is logical consistency. For instance, modern Catholicism has undergone drastic reversals on major issues. Take salvation outside the church. The whole raison d'être for the priesthood is the presupposition that saving grace is channeled through the sacraments. To be saved, to be in a state of saving grace, you must receive valid sacraments. To receive valid sacraments, you must receive them from validly ordained priests. And valid holy orders is contingent on apostolic succession, the Roman episcopate and papacy. 

Once, however, you say that people can be saved apart from the sacraments, then the whole rationale for the sacraments, priesthood, episcopate, and papacy begins to unravel. And it's not just the occasional exception. Contemporary popes are verging on hopeful universalism. 

Likewise, contemporary popes are increasingly pacifistic. On a related note is their opposition to the death penalty. 

Yet another example is the contrast between the policies of anti-modernist popes regarding evolution, historicity and traditional authorship of Scripture and popes from Pius XII onward. 

From a logical standpoint, we can say these are inauthentic developments. "Inauthentic" in the sense that they are not valid inferences from traditional positions. To the contrary, they are logically inconsistent with traditional positions. 

2. Another criterion is truth. Muhammad, Swedenborg, Sun Myung Moon, and Joseph Smith were false prophets. From an alethic standpoint, it's nonsensical to ask what represents a true development of a false premise. All the sects of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Mormonism are factually false. That, however, is distinct from the question of logical development (see above).

From a Protestant perspective, Biblical revelation is our touchstone of truth. That's a way we distinguish authentic from inauthentic developments. 

3. Finally, there's the criterion of historical development. That's a loose criterion, but not meaningless. 

Let's use the metaphor of a card deck. The standard deck with 52 French cards. Four suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades. 

Many card games are based on that standardized card deck. Even though different card games have different rules, what they all share in common is the same card deck. 

Compare that to Tarot cards. That's a different deck.

Another differential factor is the card sequence. That depends on the shuffle. How the game plays out dependends on the sequence of the cards that are dealt. If you reshuffle the deck, the game will play out differently. Likewise, if you deal from the bottom of the deck rather than the top of the deck. And, of course, how skilled the players are will affect the outcome.

In terms of truth and logical consistency, many developments in modern Catholicism are inauthentic. They are, however, distinctively Catholic developments in the sense that given the hand they dealt themselves, there are only so many ways to play that hand. The Catholic deck has certain cards that can be combined or recombined in different ways. A theological paradigm generates the available options. 

Catholicism has always been eclectic and syncretistic. It's possible for Rahner or von Balthasar to accentuate and elaborate a particular strand of Catholic tradition. Tradition can take on a life of its own, detached from fact and logic. 

But certain developments are not in the cards. Different religious traditions play with different decks of cards. If you reshuffled the deck, historical theology would take a different turn. 

Dropping the metaphor, if Christianity had originated in ancient China or India or Mesoamerica, that would reshuffle the deck. Church history would take a different course. Because Christianity originated in the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, historical theology interacted with, and adapted to, Greek philosophy as well as indigenous socio-economic, scientific, and political influences or challenges. 

As the Christian center of gravity shifts to the global south, that will reshuffle the deck. Closed questions in theology will be reopened. New heresies will arise, which generally duplicate old heresies. Christians in the global South will have to assess for themselves whether the legacy of Western theology represents an authentic development of the authoritative source (Scripture). 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A tale of two cancer patients


Nabeel Qureshi and Christopher Hitchens both died of cancer. Both had powerful inducements to recant their views: Hitchens to recant his atheism, and Nabeel to recant his Christian conversion. Both died as they lived. Hitchens died for nothing while Nabeel died for everything.