The Seared Conscience

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

What does it mean to have a seared conscience? It’s something like seared flesh. The top layer is dead and insensitive to pain. To have a seared conscience is something like the experience of doing, over and over, that which you just know to be wrong until you stop listening to your moral intuitions all together. Peter writes of a similar experience:

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. (2 Peter 2:20-21)

Again, why is it worse? Acting in the face of consciences condemnation slowly puts your conscience to death. For the Christian, sanctification is the two-fold process of listening to conscience and reforming conscience where it is in error. To desensitize conscience makes you, from a personal-social standpoint, irredeemable. That’s why the author of Hebrews says that people who are subjecting Christ to crucifixion all over again by their public actions cannot repent. They’re too busy intentionally stifling the truth to be able to hear its call.

Interestingly, this ancient piece of observational psychology has been discovered anew:

“Moral incongruence, in this case, the experience of disapproving of IPU [internet pornography use] while still using it, seems to be a key variable in predicting a host of important outcomes associated with pornography use, not the least of which is perceived addiction to internet pornography.”

Doing what you know or feel to be bad and deriving pleasure from it [at least with respect to porn] leads you to feel trapped in that behavior. I wonder if this holds true in other areas like drug use, losing your temper, failure to exercise, over eating, etc. And if so, what are the options? Convincing people to give up on their moral positions? If wrong, this makes sense. But maybe this is where a therapeutics of personal responsibility might be useful. The stoics recommended taking responsibility for everything you experience/do. The Lord tells Cain something similar. Thomas Saasz recommends jettisoning the notion that mental disorders are anything other than repetitive behaviors for which people can take responsibility.

I certainly don’t want a seared conscience.

Love Your Neighbor and Marus Aurelius

In the passage below, the word “as” can mean ‘as though’ or ‘while.’ This is so in the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

Most interpreters take the word ‘as’ to mean ‘as though.’ So ‘love your neighbor as though he were yourself.’ But it might be a useful thought experiment to think of it this way, ‘love [seek the well-being of] your neighbor as you love [seek the well-being] of yourself.’ I’m not saying that’s what the passage means. I’m just saying that it’s suggestive. Below is a paragraph from Marcus Aurelius about doing good by others in such a way that it benefits more than just them:

This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb (melos) of a larger body— a rational one. Or you could say “a part” (meros)— only a letter’s difference. But then you’re not really embracing other people. Helping them isn’t yet its own reward. You’re still seeing it only as The Right Thing To Do. You don’t yet realize who you’re really helping. 

Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations: A New Translation (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1657-1661). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

And so such a thought experiment might go: as I do what is best for myself, how might I do it in such a fashion that it is a blessing to others? Or, to put it the other way, how might I do what it best for others in a way that is good for myself and my family as well?

Book Review: The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers by Eleonore Stump

The Book
Stump, Eleonore. The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers, 2016.

Stump’s volume The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers deals with a question that has vexed many for centuries: is the God argued for by philosophical theologians the same being in the pages of Scripture. Atheists will often answer: no. Some Calvinists also answer: no. And open theists frequently say no.

The Problem

It’s important when claiming that a contradiction exists between assertions to understand the meaning of the assertions. The three apparently contradictory assertions are:

  1. The God of the Bible is personal, dynamic, responsive, and active.
  2. The God of the philosophers is being itself (not a being and not a person), uncaused, and timeless.
  3. The God of the Bible is the God of the Philosophers.
Stump solves the problem with Aquinas

Stump uses the writings of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the most widely read philosophical theist but also a prolific Bible commentator to show that these three assertions can be reconciled and that, indeed, it’s the understanding of God’s simplicity and eternity that can make sense of the Bible’s picture of God.

Her main picture of this is the book of Jonah. She observes that if the classical picture of God as the uncasued cause is true, it is difficult for many to see how the picture of God in Jonah could also be true. The Lord responds to Jonah’s prayers, changes his mind, has conversations with Jonah, and so-on. She responds to these charges by explaining Aquinas’ doctrines of the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian, God’s eternity, God’s immutability, and God’s simplicity.

Holy Spirit

For Stump it’s important to acknowledge that Aquinas believes in the Trinity as well as God’s eternity, immutability, and simplicity. What this means then is that Aquinas believes that the Holy Spirit is eternal, immutable, and simple. Aquinas taught that the Holy Spirit and the person of faith are in a relationship “close enough and intimate enough to be thought of as a uniting in love (49).”

After this she observes that one solution to the apparent inconsistence is to suppose that there are “two Aquinases.” But she points out that Aquinas’ writings don’t hold up to the charge of that he is guilty of “so great an inconsistency (55).”

So for Aquinas, the closeness of the Holy Spirit to the believer in time and the deity of the Holy Spirit indicate that he saw the personal God of Scripture and the God of the philosophers as one and the same being.

If in Aquinas’ view the Holy Spirit can have close personal, responsive relationships with human beings in time, what explanation of the attributes of God (immutability, eternity, and simplicity) make sense of this?

Eternity

Here, Stump argues that “nothing about God’s eternal knowledge of future events rules out human free will…(70).” Her argument is against the idea that God’s eternity (persistent timeless existence) precludes any coherent notion of God’s interaction with beings in time. She utilizes an argument from analogy using one of my favorite books, Flatland, to show how it is possible for time to be present to God all at once (62-63). I’ll leave it to her to explain it to you in the book.

She also uses the psychological concept of “shared attention” to explain what it might mean for God to be personally present with individual persons while being eternal in nature (71). God can also answer prayer “because of prayers” without answering them after the prayers or based on foreknowledge. I found that argument satisfying.

Immutability

Immutability is the doctrine that God does not change or is not caused to change. Stump shows how Aquinas’ understanding of this doctrine does not mean that God cannot respond to prayer or respond to different circumstances in time. Her analogy is that God can at time one (t1) tell Jonah that he will destroy the Ninevites in 40 days from (t1)  and 40 days from then (t2) keep them from destruction upon their repentance in one simultaneous (because of God’s eternal nature), complex (because the results are experienced in time by us) act of will (76).

Simplicity

The notion of God’s simplicity is, at its base, the idea that God is being. Or, as my friends and I concluded in high school, “God doesn’t just exist, God is existence itself.” Now, weirdly, my debate team friends and I didn’t find a problem between saying, “God is existence” and “God exists.” But many philosophers, for good reasons, find those two statements contradictory. One, for instance, is that if God is God’s own nature, it appears incoherent to claim that God can choose between “x” and “not-x.” Why? Because God cannot do other than what God does because God is God’s nature. Stump argues that Aquinas’ understanding of the intellect as always active allows for the idea that God can act because of knowledge which God comes to actively without being acted upon (thus being passive).

Implications

Stump’s reflections on the implications are really quite good. I’ll leave you with a few sentences:

  1. If God is eternal, then God’s having assumed human nature is not something characteristic of God at some times but not at others. It is something characteristic of God always. (100)
  2. The person who wept over Lazarus was God-God in his human nature but still God. And the grief that gave vent to those tears is also always present to God. If it were not so, there would be succession in God; and then God would be temporal and not eternal. (101)
  3. Perhaps more importantly, it [the doctrine of divine simplicity] provides a metaphysical grounding for an objective ethics because it can ground morality in God’s nature, as distinct from God’s will. (101)

Conclusion

The book was brief, pleasant, cogent, and helpful. I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to understand Aquinas, the relationship of philosophy to theology, or who wants to reflect upon God’s relationship to time.

On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

Introduction
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.

Example

Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but this translation reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. And if it is a false claim, then a passage about a merely tangentially related topic in order to proof-text it obscures the Bible and contradicts sound philosophy simultaneously.

Conclusion
While pastors do not need to be arm-chair philosophers. I think it is important for those engaged in the pastoral task to skilled in logic and to be aware of the best arguments concerning philosophies most important topics. One of those would obviously be whether or not God exists.

James Chastek nails it on Being as such

How can God not be a being among beings?

In one sense first member of a causal series is a part of the series, but in another sense it isn’t. If ABCD causes something, then A is obviously 1/4 of all the causes you have, but we don’t think about it that way. We don’t say that George Bush played a part in the Iraq War, or even a crucial part in it – it was just his war. Truman wasn’t a part of the system that dropped the bomb – the system was brought int existence by his choice. This is true in every genus of causes. Winning isn’t one part of an athlete’s goals, even if one can isolate other goals than this in the game or in training. A fire hydrant is red and a light wave in the right spectrum is red, but the “is” is not said in the same way. The two things “are red” but not in a way that the one is a part of the whole.

James’ blog on Thomism is one of the best philosophy blogs on the internet. I really appreciate his succinct explanations of complicated topics. In this case he hits the nail on the head. Many Christians accidentally see God as a figure within the cosmos. This is right and good as far as such images support Christian piety because the are the models utilized in Scripture. But insofar as they are mistaken for giving precise expression concerning God’s reality, such ideas (God is a part of the furniture of the universe) tend toward treating God as a creature. The Bible, in its more literal moments, treats God as the being in whom all things live and move and have their being. Similarly, God is the cause of all non-God reality in Genesis 1, John 1, and Hebrews 1. I’ve written elsewhere about how open theism and forms of Calvinism both take anthropomorphic language about God (preordaining and being surprised) too literally.

Epistemology and Practice: Thoughts

One of my chief interests in philosophy has always been epistemology. I even wrote a really bad paper in high school about whether or not one could know religious truths (it has thankfully been lost to the sands of time). For those who do not know, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines epistemology as

Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief.

While epistemology has, in many ways, been and probably will remain fun to study, one of the aspects of it that troubles me is that it often ends up fruitless. The arguments end up confusing practical people who use know-how in their careers and hobbies. On top of that, the arguments often seem never ending for the philosophers in question. Note, I am not claiming that they are fruitless, they only seem that way.

Personal Speculation

As an educator, I’ve come to view epistemology from a more pragmatic perspective (not like William James though). Epistemology, by nature, should outline the varieties of evidence and habits of reasoning that justify claims to know. In this sense, epistemology is a piece of pedagogical theory. So, the study of epistemology is ultimately and ideally the study of not only how one comes to know, but how one imparts knowledge and skill to others. This is important because it ends up connecting back to Aristotle’s rhetoric and dialectic distinction, the relationship of practice vs theory, and the fact that some people have differing levels of evidentiary rigor.

For instance, a deductive geometry proof will be absolutely demonstrative, for students who know logic or who have an intuitive grasp of how it functions. On the other hand, for students who do not grasp logic, a geometry proof will tell them nothing until A) they learn logic or B) they use the theorem in the physical world and then attempt it on paper.

A thought from a recent friend.

I recently made friends with a man who has a philosophy degree and was taking engineering classes to go to graduate school for computer programming. He became very interested in New Testament studies and his philosophical and logical training from his two fields of expertise led him to make this remark:

I was shocked at the leaps in logic and the variety of strange assumptions about dates and authorship that do not have any basis in actual evidence.

When one is an insider in a field, outsider remarks can often stink of terrible dilettantism. But I think that occasionally outsiders from sister subjects (philosophy is remarkably similar to the practice of history when it comes to carefully reviewing the foundations of knowledge) can notice important gaps of knowledge when a field becomes insular.

Leonard Euler once made a similar remark concerning apparent contradiction in mathematics that are reconcilable to how the Freethinkers treat the New Testament and any difficulty therein as instantaneously culpable or demonstrative or absolutely contradictory.

Mathematics is regarded as a science in which nothing is assumed that cannot be derived in the most distinct way from the primary principles of our knowledge. Nevertheless, there have been people far above average who have believed to have found great problems in mathematics, whose solutions are impossible; by this they imagined themselves to have deprived this science of all its certainty. Indeed, this reasoning that they propose is so deceptively attractive that much effort and insight is required to refute them precisely. However, mathematics is not lessened in the eyes of sensible people, even when it does not clear up these problems entirely. So then what right do freethinkers unwaveringly think they have to reject the Holy Scripture because of a few nuisances which mostly are not nearly as considerable as the ones in mathematics?

My point isn’t that the Bible has no contradictions, but only that within the field of New Testament studies the data set is not taken merely as a given. It is often taken as a hopelessly flawed given that can only yield true data if the content of the text is, not so much doubted (that would be a useful exercise), but assumed to be disingenuous or inferred to be disingenuous because it contains certain difficulties.

St. Anselm and the Ontological Argument

The Ignored Anselm
When I was seminary I read a few books whose authors seemed to take great joy in hating on St. Anselm. I don’t remember what they were at this point, but it still struck me as weird. He would be dismissed as somebody who was overly philosophical, he would be lampooned as having come up with a silly proof for God’s existence, or he would be criticized for foisting his medieval economics upon the gospel in Cur Deus Homo. I’m not sure that any of this criticism was warranted. I’ve been rereading Anselm and found his work to be quite edifying.

The Ontological Argument
Since I’ve graduated from seminary and started reading more philosophy I’ve discovered that the Ontological argument is not limited to Anselm (though his expression of it seems fairly original). I don’t really buy the argument because it relies (on the surface any how) upon innate knowledge rather than empirical experience. Aristotle was right on that score and so was St. Thomas. Nevertheless, it was weird to read theology text books making fun of the argument or even hearing lectures by theologians (none of my profs, just some courses I downloaded from bigger name schools on itunes university) making fun of it. The problem with doing so is that the argument has been treated much more thoroughly since that time and perhaps in much more rigorous ways than Anselm did (for his piece was also meant for devotional purposes, not merely philosophical). Anyhow, since Anselm, some version of the ontological argument has been put forward by:

  1. Rene Descartes (see his meditations) It’s also important to note, that despite his critiques of Descartes, Hume seems to have mentioned in a letter to a friend in Edinburgh, that Descartes argument still remained convincing enough. Though this could be Hume’s attempt at having his cake (being an atheist) and eating it too (not wanting to admit it).
  2. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (it appears in several of his papers)
  3. Georg Hegel
  4. Kurt Friedrich Gödel (volume 3 of his collected works)
  5. Alvin Plantinga

Some of these are more rigorous than others. But its not like the argument hasn’t received attentional due its ridiculousness. Gödel’s version has even been verified as logically valid using computer science in an experiment meant to show the utility of computers for formalizing arguments. Hegel, as far as I know, never actually stated his version of the argument, but he claimed to have it. Plantinga’s possible worlds model is weird to me because I don’t buy into the whole “possible worlds’ model of argument seems wrong headed. Rene Descartes’ version of the argument starts from global skepticism and moves from there. It at least shows that if we doubt everything we must then infer our own existence, followed by God’s own being. Again, I’m not saying that any of these are necessarily true arguments. I’m just saying that Anselm wasn‘t some medieval hack who sullied our theological heritage. It is also important to note that there are some interpretations of Anselm‘s argument that have almost nothing to do with proving God’s existence at all, but that his argument is instead an attempt to understand what it means to the intellect to have faith in the Christian God (Barth, Anselm: Fides Quarens Intellectum).

I’ll post more later on Anselm’s supposed understanding of the Atonement. To put it briefly, it isn‘t so wrong as all that.

 

Learning to Solve Problems like a Truck (or Rene Descartes)

One of my favorite diversions, when I’m in a good frame of mind, is to read philosophy. One of my favorite guys to revisit is Rene Descartes. I don’t know if it is his love for mathematics or his self-deprecating nature. He noted in Discourse on Method:  

“For myself, I have never fancied my mind to be in any respect more perfect than those of the generality; on the contrary, I have often wished that I were equal to some others in promptitude of thought, or in clearness and distinctness of imagination, or in fullness and readiness of memory…I will not hesitate, however, to avow my belief that it has been my singular good fortune to have very early in life fallen in with certain tracks which have conducted me to considerations and maxims, of which I have formed a method that gives me the means, as I think, of gradually augmenting my knowledge, and of raising it by little and little to the highest point which the mediocrity of my talents and the brief duration of my life will permit me to reach.”

So, though he felt less clever than many others, he was able, by his estimation to increase in knowledge and mental ability over time because of a method of thinking which he came upon at a young age. Let’s not fool ourselves though, his IQ has apparently been estimated to be around 162. He made important contributions to philosophy, intellectual method, (for better or for worse) to anthropology with his dualism, and to theological proofs. Even Hume claimed to be convinced by Descartes’ proofs of God’s existence.

How did a man who felt slow witted end up so brilliant? Partly genetics. But I’m more interested in his problem solving methodology. Many people find themselves confronted by a difficulty in life. A relationship problem, a philosophical quandary, a research paper, or some other such issue and they freeze. But I think old Rene had a better method:

The first [rule] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

 

The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

 

The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

 

And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.1

 

So, did you get that? Here’s my summary:

  1. Start with what you know. Ask these questions, “What do I know? What can I figure out? What is the problem I am facing? What facts are present? What knowledge do I have that is less certain?”
  2. Break the problem down into smaller pieces. For example, when trying to solve a relationship problem find answers to questions like, “How do I feel? Is this feeling based on selfishness or a genuine offense? Do I need to apologize for anything? Who wronged me? What did they do?” In a mathematics problem break the problem down into smaller steps. For instance discern which equations apply, find out precisely which unknowns you must discover, look at mathematical expressions in terms of discrete steps like in the classical order of operations (PEMDAS). 
  3. Then start solving it from the simplest and easiest steps to the hardest and most complex synthesized answers. Just because you do not know the solution to a problem does not mean that it is not available. 
  4. Finally, take notes. Write everything down, the human mind is fallible, forgetful, and is jogged quickly by lists, diagrams, and graphical representations. Write what you know, write the smaller problems, write the solutions to them and the steps, then finally bring it all to a conclusion. 

Why is this important? Because everybody ignores philosophy as though it were for ne’er do wells, effete academicians with no life, and intractably lazy individuals who snort at those who don’t have loft interests. In reality, good philosophy, is largely the art of asking and answering the biggest and smallest questions of our existence. 

 

1Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, (Electronic Edition), 2.7