Even casual readers of my blog will have picked up on my skepticism of religion. To be sure, I have not arrived at my atheism lightly; I was raised in a Christian household and for much of my childhood my father was a Presbyterian pastor. I grew up sitting in the pews, those of my father’s church and others. I made the decision to stop going to church and strike out on my own spiritual path around the age of 15, much to the dismay of some members of my family. Though they have always been supportive of who I am and [moderately] respectful of my decision to leave the church, I often entertain criticism for my atheism. But I have the great fortune of having a loving and supportive family, and despite our differing beliefs they have never made me feel like an outcast or, perhaps more appropriately, a goat among sheep. For this and other reasons, whenever I visit family and am invited to church I make an effort to attend. I do so out of love for my family, and am respectful regarding my differing convictions. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about them here…
This past Sunday I sat in on a Bible study and morning service at a Presbyterian church in the tip of the Bible Belt. I found the sermon to be interesting, but only because it was so typically problematic for Christian authority and ideology. I’d like to first present the pastor’s main point from the Christian perspective and then discuss the unaddressed issues in the passages and doctrines he underscored during the service.
The primary scripture reading for the sermon was Luke 11:37-54, wherein Jesus responds to the Pharisees and Lawyers who invite him to dine at their table. Refusing to partake in outward purifications, Jesus casts “woes” upon the Pharisees first and the Lawyers second. I won’t discuss the scripture passage in detail, as you can read it yourself in the link above. However, the pastor wanted to highlight the message in this passage that too often Christians neglect inner spiritual purity and believe that outward actions and ablutions make up for or hide inner sins. This is certainly an aspect of the passage. But I believe the larger, and more problematic aspects of this passage deal with problems of authority, sin, and punishment.
The pastor opened his sermon by saying that this passage troubled him greatly, and made him very nervous. While he did not say so, I assumed he was referring to the harsher judgement God will pass on leaders of the faith due to their elevated status in the Christian community as religious authorities (James 1:3). But he did not mention this passage. Nor did he mention the issue of authority presented in Luke. Which issue? Oh, just that the Pharisees pollute believers without their knowledge, and the Lawyers hamper believers in achieving salvation, all without their knowledge:
In chastising the Pharisees in Luke 11:44, Jesus says “Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” At the time, the pastor said, Jews considered contact with the dead and with graves to be a polluting influence, and one that required cleansing to be seen as pure in the eyes of the Lord. By comparing the Pharisees to these unmarked graves, Jesus is apparently saying that the Pharisees are corrupting and misleading true believers.
As for the Lawyers, scholars of the Jewish laws, Jesus says in Luke 11:52 “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” Not only does Jesus rebuke the lawyers earlier in the passage for adding to the (presumably spiritual) burdens of the people and taking none for themselves, but in this passage he underscores how the actions of the lawyers have a very real and hindering effect on the spiritual progression of believers.
But the pastor did not mention James 1:3. He did not harken back to the Protestant roots of the Presbyterian tradition and encourage the congregation to question spiritual authority, to drink deep the words in the Bible over the words from the pulpit. Rather, he simply counseled that God requires us to tithe from our heart and soul, not just from our coffers. Further, feft unaddressed and lurking is the inherent tension in Presbyterianism between God’s utter sovereignty (affirmed in the service’s prayer), the influence of spiritual leaders, and the damning weight of sin. Growing up in a Presbyterian household, I often heard Romans 9:14-23 paraphrased:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…
God’s sovereignty is such that he can at once harden Pharaoh’s heart and then put to death the first born of every Egyptian family as punishment for Pharaoh’s actions. He can close the eyes of some and cast them into eternal damnation, while opening the eyes of others at his whim. And the those stewards of his inerrant word, the modern day Pharisees and Lawyers, can mislead those in the pews without their knowledge either knowingly or unknowingly.
So how shall we be damned? By God’s will, or by the error of those in authority? The former is simply the latter one step removed. I think it a piteous consolation prize that false teachers would be judged more harshly than others; for what harsher judgement exists than to be damned to eternal punishment without trial, to be held accountable for that which is inescapable? John M. Frame defines apologetics, the defense of the Christian faith, as giving “reason for our hope.” But what hope do those who are not in God’s favor have?
Guest Post: Mattheus von Guttenberg on an Exploration of the Validity and Necessary Content of Transcendental Argumentation
The following guest post is from Mattheus von Guttenberg, who is currently studying history and economics at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida and writes for the blog Economic Thought. Click here to get in touch with Mattheus!
Charles Taylor, in his seminal work Sources of the Self, puts forward an argument on the relationship between identity and moral truth using a variety of methods, but most notably that of the transcendental argument. Taylor, belonging to what might roughly be called a Neo-Aristotelian camp of moral philosophers, argues that we can derive moral truth by virtue of a moral ontology intrinsic to us as perceptive and evaluative subjects. While the transcendental argument Taylor employs does not appear to us readily and clearly, it is nonetheless the entire vertebrae of his argument without which we would have no reason to accept his conclusions. D.P. Baker, of the University of Natal in South Africa, has written cogently on this topic. Because it carries such persuasive potential, I feel a devoted exploration of Taylor’s transcendental argument, as well as Baker’s contribution to the discussion, is in order. It is my opinion that Taylor does not successfully prove his claim on morality as the content of his argument is inappropriate to the form in which he carries it.
I recently learned that John Hick has passed away at the age of 90. I have been holding on to this piece for quite some time, as I feel I haven’t quite said what I want to say, or am not saying it quite as succinctly as I would like. Regardless, I would like to post this in memory of John Hick, with whom I have almost always disagreed but always enjoyed reading nevertheless. As always, please feel free to offer your critiques and comments, especially since I view this as a fairly rough piece.
John Hick begins his explication of the Irenaean Theodicy by briefly summarizing and simultaneously discounting the Augustinian approach. I shall not spend much more time than Hick does in defining the Augustinian approach, and the only reason I do so at all is to offer a companion against which Hick’s Irenaean Theodicy might be compared as divergent from traditional Christian theodicy. In short, the Augustinian model follows a traditional Christian viewpoint of creation and the fall of man. It postulates that men (and angels) were created as perfect, free, and finite beings who fell from perfection as a consequence of their misuse of freedom. Hick states that, “the Augustinian approach…hinges upon the idea of the fall as the origin of moral evil, which has in turn brought about the almost universal carnage of nature.” An integral piece of Augustinian Theodicy inherent in thinkers all the way from St. Augustine to Alvin Platinga is the free-will defense against the Problem of Evil. This defense chiefly rests upon the idea that God’s creation was entirely perfect and yet man and angels chose to sin of their own free choice, which resulted in the evil that we now see present in the fallen world. Read more…
In common parlance the phrase “it is in my nature to ______” generally holds the connotation that the action is faultless, since the subject cannot possibly be held responsible for its own nature. The same would seem to hold for inevitable actions that derive from nature. At issue in this post is Augustine’s concept of ‘nature’, which encompasses a vague set of variables that are seemingly in flux. This creates several problems when considering the concepts of original sin, free will, and punishment. Specifically I believe that Augustine fails to define nature adequately and thereby leaves his interpretation open to a certain set of criticisms, which I will enumerate. First I will briefly outline Augustine’s argument surrounding the origin of sin in a free will, and the role that nature plays in his argument. From there I will offer an interpretation of our nature and will contrary to Augustine’s, namely that it is a fault of our nature to be mutable and thus it is unjust to punish the inevitable corruption. Drawing a contrast between these two viewpoints, I will show how neither option is consistent with his writings and thus neither is preferable. Read more…
I have previously written on some common misconceptions regarding determinism and its implications, spurred by a post over at what is now Reasons for God, a Christian apologist blog. While updating a redirected hyperlink, I noticed a post that had previously escaped my attention. Entitled, “Atheism and the Denial of Freedom” which posits that atheists, due to the nature of their beliefs, cannot in good faith (no pun intended) believe in free will. In this post I would like to once again correct a specious argument that unfairly saddles atheists with a belief in determinism.
I should first like to take to task the manner in which the author stacks his conclusions. I will ignore the particular definition of atheism the author utilizes, as it does not truly matter in this instance, and instead highlight the problematic nature of the assumptions he makes. This argument demonstrates not only the sophomoric approach applied, but also a failure to understand the robust discussion concerning the metaphysics of the universe that continues to this day in professional philosophy.
Today marks the Clergy Project going public. Sponsored in part by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Dan Barker and other members facilitate the group, which offers an intellectual shelter for those members of the clergy in various organized religions who are now inclined toward atheism, or at least seek to cut their ties with religion in some sense. Some have already left the ministry, but many are trapped; with families to support, bills to pay, and no marketable skills or means to gain them, the ministry has proven incredibly difficult to abandon for those who are so inclined. Many, too, risk losing their families, friends, homes, and their only stable source of income.
The Clergy Project seeks to make public the difficulties these individuals face, and to open up what began as a private, invitation-only support group to a wider audience in the hope of reaching those who may have thought they were alone in their intellectual growth. I have the great fortune of knowing an active member in the Clergy Project, and we had discussed the Project prior to it opening up to the public (though there have been several small news reports surrounding it in the past). We spoke one evening about the problem many Clergy Project members face with respect to personal integrity. Many must hide their true beliefs from their families or risk alientating themselves from their loved ones, and must often preach or counsel based on beliefs they no longer hold. This becomes especially poignant when no end is in sight, and no like-minded individuals are available for support. How can you respect yourself if you profess to believe that which you do not believe, and must live in accordance with principles you no longer adhere to? In this way the Clergy Project offers a glimmer of hope for the spiritually marooned. This is no guerilla war against evangelical Christianity – it is a Humanist project to the core if ever there was one. The Clergy Project is not so much about faith as it is about humanity, not so much about religion as it is about people.
I encourage all those who are interested to visit the website, read some of the testimonials, and, most of all, spread the word. While the project may reinforce the beliefs of the non-religious, it does all the more for those behind the pulpit or in the pew who have neither the means nor the momentum to leave.*EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Dennett is not a sponsor of the site, but was involved in the initial study that resulted in the formation of the group.*