Sunday, 29 December 2013

Quick Life/Blog Update

Here’s a general update on what’s going on...
 
I’m working at the moment as an assistant to the full time tutors at the OCCA (Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics). I’ve been in the role for a little over a year now. I relocated to Oxford and now stay in Wycliffe Hall, an ordination college for the Church of England. (No, I’m not becoming a priest, I just live there!) The job has been an immense blessing. Perhaps not surprisingly, I love Oxford. Having only lived in Northampton and Stoke-on-Trent previously, it is refreshing to live somewhere that is actually beautiful. I mostly do ‘behind the scenes’ administration and organisation but I’ve also had the chance to do things like edit videos, research, write for the ministry magazine, and even teach an optional class or two. The best part of my whole ‘Oxford experience’, though, is getting to participate in the community of OCCA/Wycliffe staff and students. So many thoughtful, dedicated followers of Christ from all around the world.

Since October, while maintaining my full-time job, I have also enrolled on a part-time, distance learning MA in the Philosophy of Health and Happiness from the University of Birmingham. Surprised that I’m not studying philosophy of religion? I am still, of course, deeply interested in philosophy of religion but I found that the kind of questions I wanted to explore about religion were not the typical kind usually put under the ‘philosophy of religion’ label. And a more experienced friend advised me to acquire expertise in some field outside of philosophy of religion and then bring that expertise to bear on religious matters. That struck me as good advice. That said, there is some philosophy of religion as part of the course. Over the past term, I have handed in essays assessing the view that moral wrongness just is breaking God’s commands and assessing the implications of certain recent theories of religion from the cognitive sciences. Next term I get to look into the philosophy of health and happiness directly and also the philosophy of psychiatry.

As you have probably figured out, full-time job plus part-time education leaves little room for much else. I won’t be making any lengthy blog posts for a while – not till Summer break at least. I hope to not leave this place totally dead though. I have agreed to submit a very small monthly column to chrysolig.org called 'Stuff People Say'. My first contribution (here) is on the common saying that faith is belief without reason or evidence (and how apologists might accidentally reinforce that belief!) I will link to future contributions. Besides that I might post intriguing quotes and snippets from items that come up in my MA research. It is also plausible that I could finish the series on the philosophy of romantic love by then seeing as I just need to re-work pre-written material for that.

In other news, I’m also now a contributor at apologeticsuk.blogspot.com. I intend to post some things there that might have more of a niche apologetic, rather than more general, interest. I believe that the only contribution of mine I have not re-posted is a piece (here) on whether science has proved that things can begin to exist without cause. Oh, I also posted there a stand-alone reworking (here) of the article on anxious religious doubt I wrote as part of a series on doubt earlier in the year. Obviously, further posts on the Christian Apologetics UK blog will be on hold too.

The only other thing is to give kudos to Spence for the new blog banner image. What, you don’t know who Spence is?

Friday, 29 November 2013

Charles Taylor on the Desire for Eternity

"Now the implication of much atheist discussion of Christian or in general religious ideas of eternal life is that it is another facet of the childish attitude which takes its wishes for reality, that growing up means abandoning this. Death is final ("an eternal sleep", in the words of a French revolutionary dechristianizer). We have to start from here in order to direct our attention to this world, and making it fit for humans.

This dismissive attitude often assumes that our desire for eternity is simply one to live on, not to have our lives stop. It is this kind of desire which the famous Epicurean reasoning is supposed to still: as long as you're aware of the problem, you're alive; when you're dead, it will no longer be a problem for you. But there is something shallow about this understanding of what's wrong with death.

If we could separate happiness as a thing of the moment from any meaning, then we could enjoy some great moments now, and after pass on to some great moments later; rather as we enjoy good meals. Maybe in the old days, there was another kind of cuisine. We regret mildly its passing. But there is good food now, so let's tuck in.

But that's just the problem. The deepest, most powerful kind of happiness, even in the moment, is plunged into a sense of meaning. And the meaning seems denied by certain kinds of ending. That's why the greatest crisis around death comes from the death of someone we love.

Alle Lust will Ewigkeit; not just because you might want it to go on and on, as with any pleasant experience. Rather, all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn't last.

And when you look back on your life together, those happy moments, those travels in the sun, were bathed in the awareness of other years, other travels, which seemed to come alive in the present one. This is the Great Return, the real "ewige Wiederkehr"; not just the recurrence of something similar, but the return of what was undying in that moment. This is what Proust seems to reach to, and not just the recall of what is lost forever.

But even just holding in memory is akin to keeping the time alive; even more if you can write about it, capture it in art. Art aspires to a certain kind of eternity, to be able to speak to future ages. But there are also other lesser modes or substitutes for eternity. One can make the eternal be the clan, the tribe, the society, the way of life. And your love, and the children who come from it, have their place in the chain; as long as you have preserved, or better enhanced, that tribe or way of life, you've handed it on. In that way, the meaning continues.

This just shows how joy strives for eternity, even if all that is available is a lesser form of it; and even if something is left out that matters to us highly individuated moderns, as the particular things that meant most to us are gradually lost in the general impact we've made. And of course, this eternity can't preserve those who are really forgotten, or those who haven't left their mark, or those who have been damned, excluded. There is no general resurrection in this "eternity" of grateful posterity. This is what exercised Benjamin, the unfilled need to rescue those who were trampled in history.

Now all this doesn't show that the faith perspective is correct. It just shows that the yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as. The Epicurean answer copes with (some faces of) "la mort de moi", but not at all "la mort de toi", or the death of meaning.

And so what? Doesn't the fact that this is a serious, an unstillable longing just show up even more the courage you need to be a clear-sighted atheist? Perhaps, but it also shows how the yearning for eternity reflects an ethical insight, the one expressed in the Nietzschean phrase, which could be put negatively, that death undermines meaning. Something important is lost when one forgets this."

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. Print. pp.721-722.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Philosophy and Romantic Love: the Story of an Awkward, Promising Couple

This series is an adaptation of a talk, ‘The Philosophy of Romantic Love’ that I gave at the University of Oxford Socrates Society, May 2013.

Yes that’s right, I want to philosophise about romantic love. Let me relay, though, by way of introduction, a story about an exchange I had while I was preparing this material.

I was reading an especially good book on the topic at hand in the common room of Wycliffe College; there was just me in there and this one girl. She too was reading. But she paused for a moment to ask me what it was I had my head buried in. And I admit, I was happy to be asked. I considered this a stellar opportunity to come across as interesting, thoughtful and generally pretty cool. I replied, “a book on the philosophy of romantic love” and expected this to be the start of an enthralling conversation. “Oh”, she said and returned her attention to the book in her hand. Obviously, as far as I was concerned, she just hadn’t understood quite how exciting my reading project was. So I thought I had to make it more explicit. “It’s just sooo interesting”, I said, “I mean, the philosophy of romantic love.” She, however, still wasn’t taking to the topic. “I can’t think of anything less romantic,” she responded.

I share this story because there is a question mark surrounding the legitimacy of philosophising about love. That girl wasn’t just getting at the fact that a philosophical treatise on love isn’t itself romantic. She was also conveying her sense that analysing love - philosophising about it - does damage to the thing itself. Her sense was that if you’re going to talk about love, you need poetry, metaphor, imagery and the like (she was herself a poet, interestingly). A discourse that resembles philosophy comes across sacrilegious. It’s taking the magic out of something special. 

There are three big questions I want to discuss in this series and the first is this one about whether we should be philosophising about love at all. And, in fact, even if we do decide to, what are we looking for? Even if we gain more knowledge about love, can we gain wisdom to actually be better lovers?

Obviously, I’m writing on the philosophy of love so I must think there are some gains to be had in reflecting philosophically about love. And indeed I do but I am sensitive to this fear that philosophy really isn’t called for here. After all, when you look at what philosophising is like, at least in the contemporary Anglophone tradition, its whole attitude seems starkly opposed to a loving one.

Analysis is the heart of this sort of philosophy. But the love of analytic rationality typical of philosophers is hard to separate from notions of control and self-regulating autonomy. To analyse and comprehend is to break a phenomenon down into its component parts and see how it fits together. We try and achieve full articulacy and clarity about the thing we’re dissecting. This understanding, we hope, potentially allows for the possibility of manipulating the components or regulating our response to them. Such detailed theorising has the attraction of promising that we avoid slipping carelessly into error, leaving us self-possessed and in charge of ourselves.

But love, gloriously, isn’t like that! Love is a position of openness to the beloved where you precisely don’t have full control. You risk yourself - leave yourself vulnerable to the beloved’s response. And the beloved is a person whose response can’t be reduced to calculable formula. Moreover, love defies full articulation. You don’t have reflexive clarity about it precisely because it is so meaningful. The significance of the beloved is too huge to put into words.

When asked about our beloved why we love him/her, the question certainly makes sense. It isn’t that the enquirer has made some sort of category error. And we may spurt out a few things. He’s so kind, she’s so funny, he just has this sparkle in his eye etc. But both we and the other person recognise that we are not giving exhaustive answers. Indeed, the enquirer would be horrified if we specified a few things and said, yup that is precisely and exactly why I’m in love. That would just be evidence that you’re not in love – that whatever you’re experiencing isn’t that profound!  Full articulation is out of reach of those things that matter to us most.

So there are some attitudes of the lover that can create friction with the attitudes of a certain species of philosopher. Those philosophical attitudes, carried over into love, would be disastrous. A lover with those attitudes would be possessive, controlling, disengaged, aloof, uncommitted, uncaring, and comically rigorous in expression. Scarcely a lover at all.

Still, there is a case to be made for philosophising about love. And actually, though I don’t have the space or competence to argue as such here, the analytic ideal doesn’t just butcher love, it actually distorts what philosophy is truly about too! For insights in this direction, check out Loving to Know by Esther Meek. Anyway, what I really want to say is that, yes, certain intellectual attitudes can be destructive but some form of thinking hard and deep about love is important and can help lovers actually be better lovers. This “thinking hard” is all I shall mean by “philosophy.”

Consider this. Lovers, when they truly care about each other and their relationship, take time to reflect on the state of their relationship. Are we spending quality time together? Are we listening to each other? Why do we fight when we do? Do we not spend enough time with our other friends? Not that lovers should exist in a constant state of relationship analysis (that would be one of the destructive attitudes), but periodically, this sort of reflection is appropriate. This sort of vigilance in up-keeping the relationship is part and parcel of caring about it.

What is also part and parcel of the relationship is some rough sense – hopefully shared to a decent degree – about what romantic love is and what it’s about. We all have a certain narrative about how loves goes and what it should be like. Some features of the narrative contain particular, practical notions, like what constitutes a good, romantic date (candle-lit dinner beats out a monster truck show). Other features are more abstract, possibly implicit, and function as “ideals”. For instance, in our culture, you are likely to think that romantic love is “morally pure.” That is, you are likely to think that actions motivated by romantic love are ultimately good and excusing of otherwise inappropriate action (“all’s fair in love and war”). You probably also have certain emotional expectations about what romantic love will feel like (it will be intense, blissful and, if authentic, ever-lasting).[1] These are narratives we “play-out” as we live love. We imitate the story and make it our own. We trust it to guide us into a healthy relationship.

But our narrative is not universal and unquestionable. That’s why it can be hard to forge a strong relationship with someone culturally distant from you. You are not both drawing from the same narrative. You expect the other person to play the role from your story but they are following a different script. Our cultural narrative does, no doubt, contain a good deal of insight but it’s also quite likely, given that it’s a human culture, that it contains a good deal of distortion too.

Given, then, that reflection on how our relationships are doing is called for by our care for these relationships, it makes sense that we should reflect on the narratives that orchestrate and direct these relationships. Maybe the distortions in the narrative are jarring with your own experience of love. You may not be able to articulate it, but you sense something’s “off”. You know, in a fuzzy sort of way, that something isn’t making sense. Reality keeps failing to deliver what the story promises.

Let’s “think hard and deep” about some features of this narrative. If you’re single like me, this can be part of an anticipatory caring for a potential future relationship. Next time, then, we’ll consider the role of emotion in entering and sustaining a romantic relationship. 

[1] Ben-Ze╩╝ev, Aharon, and Ruhama Goussinsky. In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print. This book was helpful for articulating some of these ideals and for a frank look at how disastrous they can be in certain extreme cases (motivating murder!)

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Disillusionment and Discipleship

Here's a heads-up that this is an intra-Church topic.
I’m concerned that Christians are vulnerable to disillusionment. Particularly, what we might call intellectual disillusionment.

Unrealistic triumphalism is the temptation of many a church but even when the hard realities of life are acknowledged, you still won’t hear much about the harsh realities of intellectual life. We acknowledge, for instance, that your “life dreams” may not come true. You may never marry. You may never have a successful ministry. You may fail in education, etc. We also acknowledge that you might have to confront some hard truths about yourself. You may come to reinterpret attitudes you’ve long held and assumed were innocent as, instead, deeply rooted in sin and emotional damage. You may find that you are not nearly as competent (by a long country mile) a parent, teacher, spouse etc as you thought you’d be. Our honesty in these areas, however, needs to carry over into honesty regarding the possibilities of profound intellectual disappointment in the Christian life.

Quite naturally our theologies, doctrine, worldviews, cultural presuppositions, intellectual sensibilities, and so on, matter a great deal to us. They, in a sense, structure the world we live in. We come to depend on them to navigate reality. In so far as they are stable and firmly in place, we feel secure in our grasp of the world. When they are shaken we, in turn, feel anxious, “at sea”, disorientated, vulnerable, at an interpretive loss as to how to handle the world we are now off-balance in. But insofar as you pursue apologetics, or any field of study where you take seriously its implications for a Christian worldview (and your life), you potentially put yourself in the path of such an experience.

What would triumphalism in apologetics look like? Study apologetics; you will find that everything you already believe will be confirmed and you will marshal some killer arguments to defend those beliefs. Or, more modestly: study apologetics; you may find that doing so may refine and change your beliefs but these modifications will always strike you as comfortable and theologically desirable. Of course, sometimes, perhaps quite often, apologetics will be thoroughly enjoyable in those above ways. But sometimes serious intellectual pursuit will knock some cherished beliefs out of you and you won’t be quite sure how to replace them or what possibly could replace them.

You want some examples of this occurring? Well, I have my own experiences. My view of human nature, scripture, religious experience, emotional norms, and science (amongst other things) have all experienced hard shock (even as other prior beliefs have simply enjoyed confirmation.)  But detail in example would here distract us into the issue of whether my particular belief-transitions should have happened or not – whether I have good reasons to make those changes or not. I want instead to focus on broad reasons why we should expect these challenging belief-disruptions to happen.

An obvious reason is our finitude. We have very limited cognitive abilities. We don’t have the life-span to devote serious intellectual attention to much of anything and what we do devote attention to, we, to some extent, distort, misunderstand and misinterpret. We are socially-situated beings participating in a culture where a large number of things that are utterly inarticulate and utterly taken for granted are, utterly unbeknownst to us, totally up for challenge and totally alien to the thought of the majority of human beings that have ever lived.

So yes, that, our finitude. But also, God’s magnitude and the testimony of Scripture to our ability to get it totally wrong. You see this right in the midst of the central gospel events. Picture the disciples before the cross, it so starkly present, so undeniable there in front of them. With maximal cognitive force – the plain-as-day perception of their eyes – their world was broken. God did not molly-coddle the reality of the cross to them. Everything they thought they knew about the messiah and the kingdom was destroyed in that event. There was no gentle easing-in to the realisation of their mistake. It was sudden and brutal. So far as we can tell, God let them bear the brunt of that disorientation for a full three days.

And yet, it was glorious that they were wrong. The event of their disappointment was God’s very plan for salvation. What a lesson there may be in here for us.

Here, though, I risk triumphalism about even this topic! We have to make the typical caveats that plague all our hopes in this now-but-not-yet-full experience of the kingdom. We may have to wait longer than three days to see our confusion, puzzlement, or despair transform into comprehension. We may wait until death. We may need to actively fight to keep faith in God’s plan. And fight bitterness, inaction, and pessimism.

I am concerned that we are not prepared for such fights. I concerned that, in fact, we foster an over-protective intellectual environment that doesn’t prepare people for the bumps and knocks of honest exploration of reality. People who are unprepared for a rocky intellectual journey - people who are taught only to expect ease and triumph - will experience those harsh realities as profoundly disillusioning. Reality can confront us without a sugar-coating and our snug beliefs can be ripped from us in a way that feels, frankly, cruel, as I'm sure Jesus' disciples would testify. But if we, too, are his disciples, why do we consider ourselves immune? Why do we think we will never have our own worldview lay in splinters? Why do we think that, even if he were to do that, he would certainly do it slowly, gently, easily, and will full explanation? 

Acknowledging these hard-knocks as included in the price-tag of Christian discipleship allows us room in our spiritual life to interpret such hardship, when it comes, as fully part and parcel of that spiritual life. We are allowed to interpret it constructively, as something natural and something to grow through and from. Without an understanding of how these experiences fit into Christian life, their occurrence will be some extra-Christian intrusion – some menacing threat finding its way into our spiritual life wholly from outside. It can be a sort of “double disillusionment”, upsetting not only our beliefs but also our belief that our beliefs won’t be upset. And if intellectual upset is something from outside the Christian life, we may be tempted to step outside the Christian life to understand it...

Therein is the true threat. But it need not be so. Deep intellectual overhaul comes as part of being a finite being groping about before a far larger world and a far larger God. Sometimes they are painfully larger realities to confront.

This article was originally posted at apologeticsuk.blogspot.co.uk.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Is Atheism Just a "Lack of Belief" in God?

Some atheists seem uncomfortable with having atheism described as a belief. They prefer to say that atheism is a lack of belief. I can understand why. “Belief” is often thrown around as a term for a particularly religious kind of cognitive attitude, and usually with the connotation that there’s very little by way of evidence or reason accompanying it. “You just have your beliefs,” someone might say, “but I have facts.” It’s no wonder that an atheist would not want their atheism described in that sort of way. (As a matter of fact, I don’t want my Christianity described in that sort of way). So the pushback against the “belief” label and toward the lack-of description is intelligible but it is, I honestly think, muddled. If you are an atheist, I would like to invite you, through this post, to reconsider the sort of belief-status you grant atheism. I think there are better ways to make sense of what atheism is.


The reason the lack-of solution muddies the waters is because we use the word “belief” in other quite ordinary, non-religious ways too. We all have beliefs about the findings of science. We all have beliefs about what our friends like. We all have beliefs about the content of our homes. I believe my friends appreciate my sense of humour. I believe that gravity exists. I believe that my room has poor lighting that makes it easier to work outside. And so on.

Some of these beliefs will be reasonable and others will not be. My belief in gravity is certainly reasonable. That my friends appreciate my sense of humour might be more questionable (especially given the use of this lame joke as an explanatory aid). Some of our beliefs count as things we know. Some don’t. “Belief” used in this ordinary sense is silent on issues of how rational the beliefs are, or whether they count as knowledge, or anything like that. Our beliefs are just the things that we take to be true. For some of these beliefs we will have good supporting reasons to think they are true, and others not so much. This is a fairly innocent way to use the word “belief”. In fact, the other, religious, negative use of the word is just a hindrance to clear communication.

If we want to say that a belief is irrational, we shouldn’t just point out that it is a belief. Given the existence of the ordinary sense of the word, that just becomes confusing. It sounds similar to saying that a car is faulty just by calling it a car. You need to say something extra to get that across. You need say that this is a faulty car, or a malfunctioning car, or a broken car, or something like that. Likewise, to say that a particular belief is irrational, you need to say something extra: this is an irrational belief, or an unjustified belief, or an unwarranted belief, etc. We should stop trying to load one of those extra concepts into the word “belief” on its lonesome.

Both atheists and theists need to take heed of this. If you are an atheist and you want to say that Christianity is irrational, say that Christian belief is irrational, don’t just say that Christianity is a belief and imply a contrast to knowledge or fact. For beliefs can count as knowledge and be based on fact. And if you are a Christian, don’t try and play the “you too” game. Don’t try and say that “atheism is just a belief too” if by that you mean that atheism is a sort of blind leap of trust, or commitment without grounds. Some beliefs will be blind or groundless but they are not so just by virtue of being beliefs. (And at any rate, that’s the wrong approach; you shouldn’t be conceding that Christian belief is irrational and then trying to pull atheism down to that standard, you should be trying to demonstrate the Christian belief is not, in fact, irrational.)

Now that we have sorted out how best to use the word “belief” we need to assess how helpful a description “lack-of belief” is for atheism.

A belief that God exists, in light of our above discussion, is, well, just that - the belief that God exists. That is, a person who believes that God exists is someone who takes it to be the case that there is a God. Seems obvious enough.

Now clearly, there is such a thing as lacking this belief. I shan’t contest that. To lack that belief is just to not have it. And plenty of people don’t have it. Plenty of people do not think it the case that there is a God. Babies do not think it the case that there is a God. And very many adults don’t think it the case either. Some, for instance, say they are unsure about what is the case regarding God.

As a matter of fact, it isn’t just people that lack belief in God. Rocks, too, do not think it the case that there is a God. Insects do not think it the case that there is God. 
  
These non-human examples are particularly instructive for our purposes. Certainly, non-human entities can share “lacking belief that God exists” in common with humans. But clearly, humans can take some non-accepting stance toward God’s existence that non-human objects can’t. For instance, humans can think it the case that there is no God. That is, humans can contemplate the concept of God and say, “nope, I do not think that concept refers to anything in existence.” Put another way, humans can assent to (lend their agreement/approval to) the proposition “there does not exist a God.”

But non-human entities (non-conscious, non-rational ones anyway) cannot think that anything is the case. Such entities cannot assent to any proposition. So they can’t think it the case that there is no God. The above non-accepting stance, then, must be different to simply lacking belief. Lacking belief is something these entities could do, but this other stance they can’t. What is this other stance?

It’s belief. To think that something is the case just is to believe that thing to be the case. Humans beings can believe it is the case that God does not exist. This just is to believe that God does not exist.

So then, there is something humans can do on top of just lacking belief in God. Some people lack belief in God, but some of these people also go further and believe that God does not exist. And conventionally, such people have been called atheists. An atheist, then, does lack belief in God, but he/she doesn’t just lack belief in God. He/she also has, further, a belief about the matter, namely, that there is no God. An atheist lacks belief in God, but it is their belief that God does not exist – something additional - that makes them an atheist. This belief is their atheism. This is the standard, conventional way to understand atheism, and it jives well with the ordinary use of the word “belief” and makes for clear communication.
  
Atheism is a belief. As such, it carries all the duties, responsibilities and obligations that attend any other belief on first glance. It ought to be rationally justified, it ought to be supported by argument when forwarded in debate, and it ought to be subject to any legitimate political pressure relevant to the expression of viewpoints in the public square. I hope that fair-minded atheists will agree.

[A separate but related issue is whether atheism should count as a belief-system (or a worldview or quasi-religion or life-philosophy etc). I have said nothing about that in this post. That’s for another day.]

Monday, 22 July 2013

Inerrancy (Again)

A while back now, Rolo Baez – good friend of mine wrote a response to my series “Believe all the Bible or None or None of it?” on his blog Apologizing for Christianity. This is quite an arbitrary time to respond to his response but, well, this just happens to be the time that I’ve “got round to it.”

In that series, I argued that belief in “inerrancy” is not necessary. I defined inerrancy (rather crudely) as the belief that whatever the Bible affirms as true, is true. And when I argued that belief in inerrancy isn’t necessary, I argued that it isn’t necessary in pretty much any relevant sense. That is, it’s not necessary for salvation, it’s not necessary for Christianity to be true, and it’s not necessary to know that Christianity is true. Inerrancy may very well be true, and may also be theologically desirable, useful or important, but it isn’t necessary, I claimed. (Still, I emphasised that you shouldn't treat your theology of Scripture lightly. Even if denial of inerrancy is "open" it doesn't mean you should casually reach for it. I'm not interested in simply opening the doors for theological laxity. More on this and some explanation of why I address this topic over here.)

Rolo is sympathetic to my argument – indeed he is exceedingly kind in showing his appreciation for the series – but he also has some remarks to make by way of constructive criticism. I think they are worth engaging with. Both because they are good comments and also because it’s fun to pretend that you’re having some sort of highly public and important interaction!

So, Rolo’s first criticism regards how I handle a theological argument commonly put forward in defence of the necessity of the truth of inerrancy for the truth of Christianity. I laid out this argument, which I contested as plausibly unsound, as below:

(1) God is all-knowing and perfectly good.
(2) An all-knowing being would never affirm false things through ignorance.
(3) A perfectly good being would never affirm false things through an intent to deceive.
(4) Errors are only affirmed through ignorance or an intent to deceive. 
(5) The Bible in its entirety is the word of God.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Bible doesn't affirm false things (inerrancy is true).[1]

My critique of this argument focussed on the acceptability for the Christian of rejecting (5). That is, the Christian can reject (5) and still be a good, orthodox Christian, I claimed. Rolo doesn’t have an issue with my challenge of (5), rather he thinks other premises are vulnerable too, namely, (3) and (4). Rolo’s argument, then, is that my case is or could be much stronger or multi-faceted than how I presented it!

I think he’s right too. It’s not just (5) that’s open for an orthodox Christian to deny. Regarding (3), Rolo points to a couple Old Testament passages where God is portrayed as deceiving. I am also aware of some more everyday examples where deceit does not implicate the deceiver as bad or immoral. Consider “bluffs” in sport. When you, say, trick your opponent as to which side of the net you are aiming for in a football (soccer) penalty, your intent is to deceive them but that doesn’t seem to count against your moral goodness. Of course, it might be that when we analyse the situations in which deceit is not bad, the principles that allow it not to be bad would not apply in the case of God deceiving us through his affirmations. But again maybe they do apply. The point here is that this sort of analysis and enquiry is open to a Christian and it may yield favourable results.

Regarding premise (4), Rolo questions what reason we have to believe it. Might God have quite other, morally sufficient reasons for allowing error into the Bible? (Might JP Holding have given us a clue as to a possible reason in his work on textual transmission?) Well, I think this is open for the Christian to explore too. Perhaps Christians should be in the business of coming up with “errancy theodicies”, that is, akin to the work of philosophers/theologians in reasoning as to why God allows evil, we can reason as to why God allows error into the Bible.

It might be though, that theodicies of this kind are not the same in structure as regular, problem-of-evil theodicies. At least, when I think about it, there are factors that might make the two different and thus potentially make one more tricky theologically than the other. (I would articulate what I’m intuiting but I’m having trouble doing so. Or rather, I see that it would take a whole lot of effort.) In my own thought this is an underexplored area, so I’m not confident about assessing the theological plausibility of this route. It’s certainly open though to this exploration, so perhaps a Christian might find an end-point on this route that is theologically satisfying.

I guess, looking over what I’ve said, I do think there’s potential vulnerability in further premises than just (5). But I’m probably more confident that (5) can be safely rejected, theologically, than (3) or (4). More or less, though, I agree with Rolo.

Moving on, Rolo’s criticisms start to be of the sort that, should they go through, my argument would be weakened, not empowered. He takes issue with my fifth post in the series. I argued that, if inerrancy is false, we might still expect a sort of “localised inerrancy” from God. That is, we might think that though there are errors in the Bible, God has ensured that no errors affect the main, important message of the gospel. This naturally lead to the question, “how, though, can we discern what the important bits are?”

It’s my reply to this question that Rolo has issues with. Two issues, in fact.

I argued that, regardless of the truth of a text, we can typically discern the main “point” of a text. Rolo says that, regarding the Bible, it seems we can’t. There is lots of disagreement about what the Bible and the gospel are “about”. Well sure. But what exactly is supposed to follow from that? Is it the case that we are to conclude that disagreement about a matter entails that there is no truth to the matter?  That is clearly false. A disagreement in science, say, wouldn’t entail that there is no truth to how the universe operates. Is it, instead, the case that we are to conclude that disagreement about a matter entails that no reliable knowledge can be formed about the matter? Well that’s part of a much larger discussion that implicates not only textual interpretation, but morality, philosophy, pretty much everything that isn’t hard, natural science. I can’t have that conversation here but suffice to say, I won’t be chucking out philosophy any time soon!

Next Rolo says that a potential weakness of my argument lay in thinking that the main point of a text can be reduced to mere propositional content. I don’t know that it’s terribly clear how such a propositional emphasis weakens my argument, but it is, I think a general deficiency in my thinking about Scripture. It’s something I’d like to pour more thought into.

Rolo thinks my Harry Potter example shows, contrary to my intent, that an entire narrative is important, not just the crucial parts of that narrative. He asks, “if the movies do not [I think the “not” might have been intended to be omitted?] in fact contain some the main points of the book then why in the world does he decry the fact that the movies don’t contain some of the best scenes in the books? What do the books have which the movies don’t?” Recall again the aims of my overall argument. It is to show that inerrancy is not necessary. I am quite happy to concede, then, that in dropping inerrancy, one loses some of the richness of the Bible. And certainly, just having the “main point” of the Bible would be much less rich than having the whole thing. But that’s just not relevant to my argument so far as I can see!  

I think, then, that my argument stands ;)

Regarding theology of Scripture and inspiration generally, my thinking has definitely been refined since writing that series. I poked into Richard Swinburne’s book Revelation a little while back and finished Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Divine Discourse over the weekend. Both develop a theology of Scripture that is not centred on inerrancy (not inerrancy in a very wooden, strict sense anyway) and both have very plausible things to say. I need to sort out my thought still but it definitely seems to me now that there are a number of ways of articulating how exactly God is involved in Scripture that properly honour Him.

Anyway, thank you, Rolo, for taking the time to engage with my reflections!


[1] In fact this presentation was a little sloppy. To reach the conclusion you actually need to include another premise, like: “(6) If the Bible in its entirety is the word of God, the Bible in its entirety counts as God’s affirmations.”