Writings

20
May

Do Christians Have Overactive Imaginations?

asdA recent comment to one of my blog posts included an interesting analogy. The writer compared discussions between theists and atheists to Wile E Coyote cartoons, with the theists getting to play the Roadrunner:
As he explained:

You see, in the cartoon, the central gag is that the laws of physics apply to the coyote, but not to the Roadrunner. The Roadrunner can step off a cliff, stand in midair, taunt the coyote, and then race across to the other side. If the coyote tries it, the laws of physics kick in and he’s met with a long whistling fall and a dramatic splat at the bottom of the canyon.

So it is with theists and atheists. Theists live in their imaginations and have no respect of logic or the laws of the physical laws of the universe. The laws of physics are more like conveniences to them. When it servers their purpose they will quote them, but the minute they contradict what they believe, they happily toss logic and reason out the window. If the atheist raises a logical contradiction, or points out an impossibility according to the laws of physics, the theists shrugs their shoulders and says, “it’s a miracle, God can do anything”. They are not bound by the laws of physics within their own minds and imaginations and they’ve taken that to believe that neither is the rest of the universe.

There’s no arguing with that. You can’t have a logical debate with someone who has no respect for logic. Just when you think you have them pinned down and there’s no logical way out of it, much like the Roadrunner, they toss logic and the laws of physics to the wind and ignore everything you said.

You can’t have a debate if both sides can’t agree to the ground rules. Theists imagine anything is possible simply because they have an imagination that can dream up anything they want. Atheists realize that isn’t the case. But in most cases atheists haven’t realized this fundamental flaw. They keep thinking that if they only try hard enough, if they only go back to the drawing board one more time, that they can design the perfect logical argument which the Roadrunner… I mean, theists… cannot escape.

This is a clever comparison, one that many atheists may believe is true. But does it stand up to scrutiny? The kind of scrutiny that the challenger claims to believe in?

1. Do Christians live in their imaginations? Some may, of course, but Christian positions are not imaginary ones. Christian doctrine is not that Jesus was a cartoon, some Casper the Ghost figure who can move through buildings and has other super powers. In fact, Christians don’t attempt to explain how God altered the observable laws of nature – they just conclude that he did, because dead men don’t return to life. It is not a resort to imagination to conclude that there are things we cannot explain; it is the reflection of a proper sense of humility, especially as we realize the immense power and intelligence of the being who “thought” into existence a universe of this size and complexity.

2. Do Christians lack respect for logic or the physical laws of the universe? “Logic” is simply the method of reasoning that governs correct or reliable inferences. It encompasses certain rules, such as if A= B and B= C, then A= C. The “physical laws of the universe” are descriptions about the way things in nature work. They don’t command rocks to fall or fire to burn; they simply describe patterns that are discerned from repeated observations. For example, a gravitational constant is a mathematical expression of the way gravity operates; similarly, electrical conductivity describes how well certain materials can conduct electricity. In what way do Christian beliefs “disrespect” either? The belief in the resurrection, or in any of Jesus’ miracles, does not run afoul of a proper respect for either logic or the physical world. There is no rule of logic that dictates that supernatural events are impossible. Nor is there a conflict, logical or otherwise, between believing in physical laws and in accepting the possibility that whatever set the laws in motion has the power to alter them, if he so chooses. The way that Christian beliefs can be challenged, along these lines, is if Christians are forced to agree that supernatural events are not possible. This in essence is what the atheist demands. But what proof, logical or otherwise, does he provide for this presupposition?

3. What does it mean for something to be “impossible according to the laws of physics?” It means that as long as those laws are operating, the impossible event cannot occur. But upon what principle does the atheist rest his case that these apparent “laws” are inviolable? A computer programmer can create a simulation in which certain laws operate for the characters in the simulation. The programmer is not bound by those laws; quite the opposite is true, as he is the one that created them. Having exercised that power, altering the laws, whether temporarily or permanently, is not a particularly difficult task. It may seem so to the character in the simulation that is bound by the programming, but that is simply a failure of knowledge or awareness on his part, and not an actual limitation upon the programmer. So too here: if the atheist wishes to start with the presupposition that the laws of nature are some type of mindless, self-generated and eternally existing rules that cannot be violated, then of course he will conclude that any apparent violation of those laws is impossible. But this is not logical thinking; it is the fallacy of circular reasoning.

4. I have no idea what “logical argument” the atheist can muster that will “pin” the Christian. The only way to “pin” a Christian is to begin with the presupposition that informs the atheist worldview – this universe is all there is, was or ever will be. It somehow created itself and despite the fact that we cannot know more than a sliver of what is knowable about a universe that is, for all practical purposes, beyond comprehension, “logic” somehow dictates that the one thing that can be known for sure is that it created itself. Perhaps in this the challenger is correct: the atheist position is utterly lacking in imagination. To believe that a human being with a limited capacity for knowledge can establish with certainty that the universe has no creator is noteworthy mainly for the self-delusion that must underlie it.

On further thought, perhaps the analogy is accurate in one respect: the atheist’s circular argument faces a fate similar to Wile E. Coyote’s, as it, and he – perched as they are in midair – have very little besides empty air to support them.

Posted by Al Serrato

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12
May

The Telephone Game and Christian Belief

sfWhen talking to a skeptic, it’s not uncommon to hear the challenge that what we have in the Bible is not particularly reliable. Making reference to the “telephone game,” the unbeliever will often claim that the Bible is probably much different than the original “story” it was meant to document. The analogy resonates with many people, who realize how hard it is to memorize in exact order a string of words that are spoken once. By the time it is repeated to the tenth person, it will bear little resemblance to its original form.

But does this analogy aptly describe the transmission of the Biblical texts? Putting aside for a moment evidence from sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls which corroborate the accuracy of the Bible, are there other reasons to conclude that the “telephone game” bears no resemblance to the transmission of the early texts?

The first step in assessing this analogy is to consider the unspoken assumptions that are at play. The “telephone game” usually involves a rather meaningless sentence, spoken once, in which word-for-word memorization is the goal. The sentence to be memorized has no particular significance and no importance is associated with it, other than to memorize it word for word. Modern players live in a culture where written and electronic information storage systems have virtually eliminated the necessity of being able to quickly memorize long passages of information.

To be valid, then, the challenge of the telephone game assumes that these same conditions apply to those early times. But the experience of the early Christians bears no more than a superficial resemblance to this type of game. Yes, they were trying to remember things that were said in the past. But that is where the similarity ends.

In today’s culture, we have a certain approach to documenting history, one that highlights detail. We also have the technology to make recording detailed statements and events easy. Given these factors, certain expectations arise. Take for instance a criminal trial. As a juror, you may want to see and hear the actual interview in which the killer confessed, because you want to know exactly what he said, what words he used, whether he paused, how he came across as he was speaking. When the non-believer takes this approach to Biblical texts, he will reject them before he even considers their reliability because they will never meet these expectations. The skeptic rejects the text without ever really assessing it in the context in which it was written.

The writers of the First Century did not have electronic means to record statements, nor did their culture put a premium on recording history the way we do. They did, however, have a rich tradition of passing on stories, of using their minds to memorize long passages, even entire books. Accurately passing their traditions and stories and knowledge from generation to generation was highly valued.

When the first Christians began to document Jesus’ message, they were not playing a game in which He quickly said a string of words and asked them to repeat it. Jesus traveled from town to town spreading his message. His followers no doubt heard him speak on a subject on numerous occasions. What they eventually recorded was not a transcript of a particular speech, as if he were uttering the Gettysburg address once, and only once, at one particular moment in time. He was addressing themes repeatedly, using parables to convey his meaning, and inquiring of them if they understood. Given this context, it is not really hard to understand how someone who heard Jesus tell something they considered important – perhaps having heard it many times – would have committed to memory what was said. The important thing for the writer would not be that he got every word in the exact order it was said; it is likely that Jesus Himself varied what He said from speech to speech. The important thing would be that the meaning was accurately passed on.

Moreover, the central truth claim of Christianity is that Jesus died on a cross, was buried and then rose again on the third day, appearing thereafter to his disciples and many others. Remembering that they witnessed these events would not be difficult even for a person of average mental ability, as the unique and supernatural nature of what they witnessed would be indelibly recorded in their memories.

While the challenge of the”telephone game” has some superficial appeal, it is at most a red herring, a distraction which prevents some people from ever giving the historical truth claims of Christianity a fair hearing. The Christian message is far more robust – and meaningful – than a simple children’s game.

And that simple truth is certainly worth remembering.

Posted by Al Serrato

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4
May

How Christianity Makes Better Sense of Suffering

asdA common challenge by atheists raises questions that most Christians feel ill-equipped to handle. I know from first hand experience how unsatisfactory many of our “answers’ may seem. Take this question, for instance: how, it is asked, can a “loving” God allow billions of unborn babies to die. Since the beginning of human history, God has allowed countless babies to die either before birth or shortly after. The Christian God, the argument goes, has taken no prudent or loving steps to protect unborn children nor has he done anything generally to alleviate the dreadful impact of the natural world on fragile human beings.

This challenge is but a variation on the standard challenge which, atheists contend, proves that the God of the Bible – a God who is both loving and powerful – cannot exist. But the challenge proves more about the presuppositions of the challenger than it does about the existence of God. There is an assumption at play here – that the only life there is is the “natural life” prior to death and that to be “loving,” God must allow all of us to have a full, long, happy and relatively pain-free life.

This secular challenge is an easy one to make. No one wants to suffer, or to see others suffer. Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the impact suffering has on us, both physically and emotionally. Yet suffering – and ultimately death – are a constant and prominent feature of the human experience. Making sense of this state of affairs is not easy, as we seek to understand things from our limited perspective. The value of the Christian worldview is that it transcends these limitations. While the atheist can make no sense of this often “short and brutish” experience, the Christian worldview, drawing on an outside source, can. We were never promised 100 pain-free years; no, we were made for something far greater, something we squandered when we used our free will to oppose God. Destined for eternal life, we face a problem – spending that eternity separated from the one who created us.

But God in his mercy provided a solution. The contrast in worldviews is stark – to the secularist, the most that can be hoped for is 100 pain free years – an utterly impossible wish- and then oblivion. To the Christian, the point of this life, however long or short, however painful or pain-free – is to make it to the next life, to that life in God’s presence that Jesus’ death on the cross made available to us. Just as the issue for an unborn baby is not how painful gestation or birth may have been, but whether he or she survived the experience, so too for us at this phase, the ultimate issue is whether this life leads to the fullness of eternal life with God, or whether it leads to eternal emptiness separated from God.

But what of the atheist’s contention that such a God cannot be “loving.” How can loving and suffering ever be reconciled? To answer that, we must have clearly in mind what is meant by “loving.” To some, loving means giving someone everything that he may want; never having to set limits or say no to someone. After all, to say “no” is to deny the person something that he or she wants, and will only lead to frustration and unhappiness on the part of the other person. It does not take much reflection to see that this definition – employed these days by far too many permissive parents – is a prescription for disaster as it relates to raising children. Anyone who has dealt with a spoiled child knows why.

No, to “love” someone requires something more: it requires that we seek the good for the other. “Tough love” is effective – and not an oxymoron – because there are times when the “loving” thing to do is to deny another the thing he wants, even if that leads to suffering. Some parents learn this lesson the hard way; wanting to give their children everything, they depart from the natural order of things. They prevent their children from learning the harsh realities of this world – a world we did not create and whose rules we cannot alter simply by wishing them to be different. By shielding their children from nature’s harsh realities, they fail to prepare the child for adult life, where hardship and frustration are common experiences.

But our problem is greater than that of a parent needing to discipline an unruly child. If we happened across a thug robbing a pensioner, we would not employ a “loving” response and allow him to continue. Justice would override love in that setting, and we would stop the assault. The robber might have many reasons for his behavior and might have deluded himself into thinking he was somehow justified. So too with us. We may think that we are entitled to the keys to the kingdom, for us to do as we please. But to a perfectly just God, our acts of rebellion demand a response.

And therein lies the ultimate issue: if loving someone is desiring their ultimate good, who better to understand that good than the creator of this universe, the very standard by which good is measured? As a perfect being, God defines and embodies the ultimate good. Spending eternity in his presence is, therefore, the ultimate good that any of us can ever achieve. That we so often reject this gift is a function of our fallen nature. The corruption of our thinking that leads us to ever more selfish living also prevents us from seeing things – including ourselves – the way they truly are.

But God suffers no such limitation. The suffering he allows in the world is not a limitation under which he labors and can find no solution. As Christians, we trust that this suffering, a byproduct of the fall, serves a purpose. We may not grasp that purpose, and we quite decidedly do not like the consequences of it.

This world, despite its abundant riches and beauty, is a dangerous place for frail human beings. The atheists’ challenge recognizes this characteristic of nature. Yet, skeptics often rely on the fall back position that if there is a God, He will recognize their inherent goodness and reward them for their goodness. Does the skeptic not see that the harshness of nature may instead testify to the seriousness of our predicament? Does it not bear witness to the Christian position that a powerful and just God can rightly condemn us for our rebellion, and that suffering is a by product of that state of affairs? From where does the confidence come that God will see things our way?

Contemplating suffering is unpleasant business. Christianity provides an explanation for our predicament, as well as an ultimate solution. Atheism provides neither.

Posted by Al Serrato

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27
Apr

The Early Martyrs Were Cross-Examined to Death

asdSkeptics often challenge believers by claiming that the “evidence” for Christianity would never hold up in a courtroom. They contend it’s hearsay; they can’t cross-examine the witnesses, so the case would never even see the inside of a courtroom. For many unfamiliar with the legal system, this challenge seems solid. After all, why should we trust our eternity to a message that wouldn’t pass muster in a court dealing with comparatively less important issues?

A bit of reflections shows the problem with this line of reasoning. First, it doesn’t take into consideration that we know many things that could never be “proven” in a courtroom, using the rules of evidence. Just about any historical event that is beyond the lifetime of living persons would suffer from similar problems, as well as problems of authenticating documents and physical evidence relating to the case. Yet, we have little doubt that these events occurred.

More importantly, the legal system provides the right to see and confront one’s accusers, and the related right to cross-examine them about their testimony, for a reason – “confrontation” is a reliable way to test evidence, to ensure that it is credible. But there are other ways to assure oneself that a person’s testimony is credible. In the case of the early martyrs, the way they demonstrated credibility – steadfastness in the face of persecution – is even more reliable.

Consider: if a witness testifies that he saw the defendant point a gun at the victim and fire the fatal shot, the defense will want the right to test the reliability of that account of what occurred. But what will they test? Generally speaking, the attack will take one of two possibles tacks: show that the witness is mistaken – he believes that he saw what he says but he is mistaken – or show that the witness is lying – he knows the defendant did not commit the crime but he is saying so for other reasons. If neither is the case, the witness’ testimony will prove very damaging to the defendant.

In preparing to cross examine, a skilled attorney does not rely simply upon his oratorical skills. He needs to plot out an approach. If he wants to challenge the witness as mistaken, he will inquire into the types of things that could cause a mistake: how well does the witness know the defendant? How long did he see him? Were there impediments to clear viewing? How did the stress of the event affect the witness’ ability to perceive the event; Were drugs or alcohol a factor and if so, to what extent did they effect the witness’ ability to observe and record what occurred? Each of these avenues may prove productive in undercutting the conclusion the witness reached.

But if the witness says that the defendant is his brother and he saw him from a few feet away with nothing blocking his view, then attacking the witness as “mistaken” will not be very productive. That leaves the other possibility – that the witness is lying. What is the relationship of the witness to the defendant? Does the witness stand to gain financially or otherwise by seeing the defendant convicted? What is the witness’ reputation in the community for honesty and integrity? These factors could be of great assistance – perhaps the witness is a “jailhouse snitch” who is trying to get out from another charge by telling the police what they want to hear. Or, by contrast, maybe the witness is the defendant’s brother who just happened to be present when the defendant committed the crime and is unwilling to lie for him. The only way the trier of fact can know what to make of the witness’ statement – “I saw the defendant shoot the victim” – is for a vigorous inquiry as to all these areas to occur. Only by fleshing out exactly what the witness saw, and as much about the witness as can be gleaned, will the fact-finder be in a position to decide the likelihood of mistake or misleading.

The skeptic’s refusal to even consider the testimony of the early martyrs on hearsay grounds stems from a misunderstanding of the point of cross-examination. The strength of a person’s testimony can be shown, perhaps even more reliably than by answering questions in court, by the person’s behavior as it relates to that testimony. To put it bluntly: is he willing to die for it?

The skeptic will immediately object: but many people are willing to die for false beliefs? Yes, that’s true, but that is not the situation when we consider what those first martyrs faced. This group of men and women knew Jesus and were actual witnesses to the fact and the circumstances of his death. This was their testimony: he died a gruesome death, he was later placed in a sealed and guarded tomb, and after three days he began to interact with them in a resurrected and enhanced body. If we had them on the witness stand, which of the challenges would we pursue. Mistake would not take us very far. No attorney with any sense would claim that Jesus survived the crucifixion or that the man the apostles saw after the resurrection was not Jesus. Jesus was well known to these individuals, and they witnessed the “effectiveness” of Rome’s favored way of ensuring a tortured and humiliating death. The tomb was empty and even if an imposter had tried to play Jesus’ role, he would not have been able to fool the apostles. That would be like telling the defendant’s brother that he actually saw someone else commit the murder – not a likely way to persuade anyone.

Perhaps then the apostles were lying. They knew Jesus had died on the cross but they wanted the world to believe that he had escaped death. They knew this was false but persisted anyway. How would a skilled attorney cross examine these witnesses? He would begin with the basics: is there a motive to lie? Do the apostles stand to benefit in some way, either financially, emotionally, or through the acquisition of power? Do the apostles have some animus against the “other side?” Are there prior inconsistent statements or actions that would undercut their present testimony? How committed are they to the position they are taking?

Having cross-examined countless witnesses, I for one would not want to take on these witnesses? Committed? They went to their deaths rather than retract would be easy enough to retract – “okay, you’re right, we just really wished that he was the messiah so we fabricated this whole thing.” Prior inconsistencies? Quite the contrary. The change in their behavior shortly after Jesus’ death – from meek and broken to brave and bold – actually corroborates their testimony. Animus against the other side? They preached a message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. They gave unto Caesar the things of Caesar. Motive for gain? Hardly. Insisting that Jesus was the messiah brought them nothing; in many cases it took what little they had away. They gained neither position, nor power, nor wealth, nor anything else of earthly value. Where does the cross-examiner go? What could watching them answer questions on the stand possibly add that their behavior and actions in the face of persecution not already tell us – with much greater force?

The missionary Jim Elliott once said “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Having witnessed the risen Lord, the early martyrs had a level of confidence in their message that few today can manage. They might accept the label fool, but liar?

It is the fool who would stake his case on that argument.

Posted by Al Serrato

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21
Apr

The Probability of a Past Event is One

asIn recent posts, we’ve been discussing the difficulties inherent in defining and recognizing the miraculous. The skeptic usually approaches the issue with the set presupposition that miracles, however defined, are not possible. What the believer concludes is a miracle is in fact the product of limited knowledge or ignorance. The skeptic’s “god” – science – will someday show how the miracle we assumed occurred was actually no such thing at all.

This is a difficult topic to tackle in the abstract. If a miracle is defined as a departure from the known laws of nature, then it is easy to assert that with enough additional knowledge, we will be able to see that the event in question wasn’t actually a departure after all.

The problem with abstract discussions is that they sometimes cause us to lose focus on the issue at hand. The issue, as it relates to Christianity, is whether a particular miracle occurred. Did Jesus of Nazareth – the historical figure most scholars acknowledge lived and was crucified some two thousand years ago – emerge from his tomb in a resurrected and incorruptible body? Countless believers have staked their lives – their eternities – on the answer to that question.

The skeptic already has his answer: since a dead man always stays dead, it is exceedingly improbable that this account could be true. The “probabilities” favor some naturalistic explanation – he didn’t die, this was a myth, a product of hallucinations, etc. But approaching the issue in this fashion demonstrates an a priori rejection of the evidence that one is supposed to be considering. And relying on probabilities in making the assessment of whether a past event occurred is generally fallacious. A past event either occurred or it didn’t; the probability of a known past event is one.

Consider: if I play the lottery, my chances of selecting the correct sequence of numbers is exceedingly small, on the order of one in many millions. The probability of my winning is extremely low. If my lottery ticket corresponds to the posted lottery results, then I have beat the odds. The event has now moved from one in the future, for which probability assessment applies, to one in the past, for which assessing whether it occurred based on probability makes no sense. Once I see that the numbers match, the argument “this can’t have happened because millions to one shots don’t occur” would be inane.

Yet the skeptic does this all the time. Because resurrections are improbable, we must keep looking for more probable solutions, regardless of what the actual evidence tells us. In fact, many don’t consider the evidence at all, having concluded that improbable results cannot occur. To use the lottery analogy, they never bother to look at the lottery results or their tickets because they are sure that they can never win.

A probability assessment of a past event does have some value. First, it may tell us whether an intelligent agent was at work in causing the result. If I keep winning the lottery, it may mean that someone is tipping me off about the numbers or altering their selection. If life on earth is statistically a one in a trillion-trillion-trillion event, it may be that an intelligent source created it and that it did not arise by naturalistic means. And if a man who claims to be God doesn’t stay dead, it may mean that he is who he said he is. However “unlikely,” if the evidence is adequate to support that the event occurred, dismissing it from our minds as “not possible” is less than rational.

Second, probability assessments may allow us to draw inferences about the way people acted. How probable is it that 500 people all experienced the same hallucination of the risen Jesus? How probable is it that dozens of people who knew the truth insisted on falsely claiming that they had experienced the risen Jesus so that they too could be put to death? Assessments as to probable behavior allow us to evaluate the legitimacy and likelihood of the claimed behavior. But probabilities can’t tell us whether a past event actually occurred. For that we need to evaluate the actual evidence, fairly and completely.

The case for the Resurrection is compelling. Perhaps it is the product of wishful thinking, but my study of the facts tells me otherwise. Because of what is at stake, each of us needs to consider the case on its merits. Enough has been written about it that this can easily be done. What we shouldn’t do is close our minds to the possibility without ever having considered the evidence.

Posted by Al Serrato

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13
Apr

A Miracle Can Be The Best Explanation

kiiSeeking the best explanation for a set of circumstances is something we all do intuitively. It’s called abductive reasoning. As Jim has pointed out on many of his podcasts, it’s what detectives do in solving a crime: putting the pieces together so that a picture of what occurred emerges in sufficient detail to have confidence that it is true. Perfect knowledge is never required.

As it relates to apologetics, abductive reasoning is a formal way of supporting the case for the validity of Christian truth claims. Though there are dozens of pieces of evidence to support the belief that the Resurrection happened, many apologists will make the case using a “minimal facts” approach. These facts include that Jesus lived, that he was put to death on a Roman cross, that his tomb was later found empty, and that his followers experienced encounters with him which were, simply put, life-changing. These followers included skeptics who knew him well, such as his brother James; zealots who were persecuting his followers (Paul); and men and women who had been following him during his earthly ministry.

What best accounts for these facts? Hallucinations do not occur in mass settings. Mistaken identification is not plausible for family members and close friends. Wishful thinking is not reasonable for those who sought to persecute rather than follow, or for those who never believed Jesus’ teachings during his life. Seeing that the cumulative case points to the fact of the Resurrection can be a powerful way to support the faith.

Many who argue against these claims do not do so on the basis of abductive reasoning; they don’t assess the piles of evidence to determine what other reasonable inference would better fit the known facts. Instead, they begin with the presupposition that miracles cannot occur. Consequently, any explanation of these events which rely on the miraculous is rejected out of hand. The case is lost before it is even considered.

In short, many argue that relying on the possibility of a miracle is simply an admission of ignorance. If you can’t establish how the miracle occurred, they argue, you should not be able to rely on it.

This challenge to provide an explanation for the “best explanation of the facts” is clever but misplaced. There are many circumstances in which we can know something to be true, or to work, without knowing how it is that this is so. Take reason or a sense of fair play, for instance. I make use of these things even though I have no way of explaining how reason works, or why I should rely on it. Consciousness is another example: in operating rooms around the world, anesthesiologists make use of drugs that can put people “under” and then restore them to consciousness without knowing how it is that this occurs. They understand the effect these drugs have on the cellular level, and they can measure differences in brain wave activity, but understanding how a grouping of brain cells goes from conscious to unconscious and back is still beyond them. Though not usually considered as such, consciousness and reason are themselves “miraculous” – no sufficient naturalistic processes can account for them.

So, if the evidence that a man was put to death and then appeared again in a re-animated and enhanced body is sufficiently credible, then the fact that we cannot currently “explain” how it occurred does not prove that it did not occur. Consider for a moment the many medical “miracles” that have occurred. There are countless cases in which a disease process stops, or reverses, for reasons that are simply not clear, at least at present. As knowledge and technology advance, some of these miracles will be explained through naturalistic mechanisms. But how can the skeptic possibly know that this will always be the case? Would this not require perfect knowledge on his part, in order to know with certainty that departures from the laws of nature can never occur?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to know more, with seeking more knowledge and more information to get the “how” questions answered. There is nothing wrong with trying to rule out all naturalistic explanations before considering the supernatural. And it may be, in the end, that additional knowledge will modify, or perhaps even change, some of our views. But refusing to go where the evidence leads because of a belief that supernatural events are “impossible” is a reflection of a person’s underlying bias, not an expression of enlightened thinking.

Posted by Al Serrato

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5
Apr

The Miracle of Easter

eaFor Christians all across the globe – men, women and children of all races, nationalities and cultures – today concludes Holy Week, a week during which we remember the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior. Adorning the buildings where Christians will gather, and often adorning their persons, the symbol of the cross is everywhere present. The reality behind the cross is quite jarring – it conjures up the vision of a man, beaten and bloody, going to a certain, and gruesome, death, in a manner diabolically calculated to maximize pain and suffering while also depriving him of any semblance of human dignity.

Why do we continue to “celebrate” this event? Why do we sanctify– make holy – this holiday?

Indeed, as the Bible makes clear, the cross is a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” for those who do not believe, but for those who are called, it is the “power” and “wisdom” of God. Why this is so requires us to understand the idea of atonement, the “balancing of the books” that Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection.

Why does Jesus’ death on the cross matter to God, or to us? Doesn’t everyone die, and if so, what makes Christ’s death any different? To answer these questions, we must first see our lives from God’s perspective. As a perfect being, He endowed us with free will, which we used to rebel against Him. This created a rift in the relationship, a chasm between God and man. So, why did He make us that way? Why couldn’t He just accept us as we are?

Good questions, and ones we will never fully understand here. But we can glimpse the answer when we consider it from the perspective of love. What makes a loving relationship meaningful is the volitional aspect of it; if love is coerced or bought, it is not love, but something else, something less satisfying, less pleasing. A master has a relationship with a servant, but what the servant feels for the master is obligation, not love. The tyrant can command his subjects to kneel before him, but he cannot compel them to love him. Payment or punishment, or any other tool of coercion, can accomplish a result, but it cannot change the mind, nor the heart. It is only when love is freely given, and when love can be lost, that we truly value it. What we want, in the end, is relationship, and that requires free will, not intelligent robots who perform according to preset programming but are incapable of feeling. And so too with God.

Jesus’ act of love on the cross – in freely laying down his life – makes no sense until we consider from what this act saved us. Christians believe that God stands ready to punish us for our transgressions against His law. Punishment for transgressing the law is of course a requirement of justice. But God, as an eternal and perfect being, demands perfect justice. What does perfect justice entail? At minimum, it demands that all transgressions be appropriately punished. What, then, is the appropriate punishment for violating the law of a perfect and eternal being? Separation from Him, as a very minimum. Why? For the same reason that law-abiding people don’t share their homes and lives with outlaws. Even without moving toward active punishment, the very first thing one would expect from justice is that it does not countenance injustice to be committed in one’s presence. But this “minimal” punishment of separation is also the bad news. Because He is eternal, our separation from Him is also eternal. Permanent separation from an infinitely perfect being – while knowing that He is there and being unable to share eternal bliss with Him and with others – is a form of torment that makes any earthly torture seem mild by comparison. It is the nature of the result – and not any sadistic purpose on God’s part – that makes Hell such a horrible place.

We can’t make sense of this “bad news” without first getting out of our mind the common notion that God will be impressed with our good deeds. We think somehow that we are good enough and that God will see that and reward this goodness. Christians believe that He won’t. That indeed is bad news.

So, how does Jesus getting nailed to a cross save us? I suppose the precise answer is “it doesn’t.” What saves us is Jesus taking in our place the punishment we deserve. Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a fully human being, He accomplishes something that no other human being has done: complete perfection. He is the only man who lived without transgressing God’s law. Therefore, He is the only man whom God, in His justice, cannot punish. If God punishes Him anyway, he would be guilty of the cosmic “child abuse” of which skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and other new atheists accuse Him. It is for this reason that Jesus tells His disciples that no man takes His life. He willingly gives it up.

Why? Because as an eternal being, Jesus is the only kind of being who can absorb the eternal and infinite punishment God can rightly impose upon us. God the Father pours out His wrath on Jesus and Jesus accepts this wrath, even though He did not deserve it, so that we don’t have to. The cross is simply the mechanism by which this transaction was completed. The resurrection then proves that Jesus was indeed the God-Man who possessed the power to “balance the books.”

In so doing, perfect justice has been fulfilled. Because Jesus offers this gift to us even though we do not deserve it, perfect mercy is also satisfied. He does not force us to accept this gift, and many do not. Nonetheless, perfect justice and perfect mercy are balanced. The debt owed a perfect God is paid and we are “saved” from the punishment we otherwise deserve – punishment that is the necessary and natural byproduct of separation from a perfect being. Once we accept the gift, we open ourselves up to a process which God will complete in us, making us ready to reunite with Him. Like a surgeon whose cure requires that we first consent to his procedures, God will not make us “perfect” and therefore capable of spending eternity with him, unless we first assent to the work he will do in us. This ultimate and eternal solution to our problem – God offering salvation to all and accomplishing the work needed to achieve it – is just the kind of perfect elegance we should expect from such a being.

This answer, of course, leaves much to be said. After all, tens of thousands of pages have been written about Christian beliefs over the past two thousand years. And there is no doubt that others have tackled this subject in a more meaningful and intelligent manner. My hope is that, perhaps, it can serve as the start of a conversation.

But for today anyway, it is enough that we reflect, and give thanks, that on this day so many centuries ago, this perfect plan found perfect execution in the loving sacrifice of our Lord.

Posted by Al Serrato

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30
Mar

How The Ontological Argument Proves the Existence of God

sfThe ontological argument for the existence of God takes considerable reflection before it begins to make sense. First formulated by St. Anselm of Cantebury, it is an argument that proves, from reason, that God must exist. You can see a summary of the argument here:http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#13

Many skeptics believe the argument is flawed because they think the logic underlying it can be applied to a host of other areas. The first, and perhaps most famous challenge to St. Anselm’s original formulation, contrived of a “perfect island” to “prove” that the ontological argument proves too much. In a similar vein, a skeptic asked me whether Anselm’s ontological argument could work in reverse – to prove the nonexistence of God. As many apologists know,

The writer referenced an atheist’s blog post which set forth the following syllogism, claiming that it provided proof that God does not exist.
1. God exists if and only if God is the maximally greatest being.
2. If God is all-just, then God is not omni-benevolent.
3. If God is not omni-benevolent, then God is not the maximally greatest being.
4. If God is not the maximally greatest being, then God does not exist.
5. God is all-just
6. Therefore, God does not exist

This argument, with its apparent logical force, is on first glance a bit troubling; after all, if the logic is sound, God isn’t. But as is often the case with atheists’ claims, this argument suffers from premises that are false, and misleading.

When Anselm formulated what became known as the “ontological argument,” he relied on a an interesting premise that may seem false on first glance. He said that the mind cannot conceive of a thing unless that thing actually exists; the thing we conceive, in order to be conceivable, must conform to something in reality. To put it another way, it is not possible to conceive of something that is not itself a real thing.

As mentioned above, critics challenged Anselm by coming up with the analogy of the “perfect island” and arguing that one could easily imagine an island that was perfect, even though no such actual island existed. These critics missed the point of what Anselm was doing. He was exploring the contours of reason, in a sense. He recognized that the human mind came preloaded with this capacity and he was examining its limits. The problem with the “perfect island” analogy is that what Anselm was talking about was not definitions but instead conceptions. What is the conception of an “island”? Well, it’s an area of land surrounded on all sides by water. Anytime we see this, we recognize it’s an island. Perfection is simply not an attribute of an island, so positing a “perfect” island doesn’t advance the analysis; it’s just playing with words.

A modern challenger might say that he can envision a leprechaun or a unicorn, and these don’t exist. But these are simply variations on a things that do exist: a little biped/humanoid with magical powers or a horse with a horn. We are not imagining things that are “unreal,” but simply combining things that do exist, and there is nothing in the conception of “leprechaun” or “unicorn” that requires existence. Perhaps such beings once lived or will live in the future; perhaps they live only in the imagination.

But moving to the conception of God, what do we find? Infinite attributes. That is what we mean when our minds try to approximate this concept. Consequently, the conception “God” is the only one for which Anselm’s definition applies: the being a greater than which cannot be conceived. If we are conceiving of a being with any limitations, then we are simply not yet thinking about God, but about something lesser. Since “necessary existence” is a feature that is greater than contingent or possible existence, the true conception of God is of a being that must necessarily exist.

So, Anselm concludes, if we can conceive of God – and we can – he must necessarily exist, because we are not capable of conceiving of things that do not exist, and God’s attributes must include necessary existence.

But can this proof be reversed on itself to prove the opposite? Let’s see where the challenger’s argument goes wrong:

1. This seems a bit tortured, but the point is correct. To qualify as “God,” the being under
consideration must be maximally greatest.

2. This is where the argument begins to break down. Justice and benevolence are not things or qualities of things. It isn’t like saying that if God is “all red” then he is not “all blue.” Justice exists only as a descriptor of the quality of a relationship. The same is true of benevolence. These qualities only make sense to the extent that they relate to the way one human being treats another. We wound’t admire a lion for its sense of justice, or a whale for its benevolence toward fellow creatures. So, God is not “all just.” He is “perfectly” just. He does the right thing with regard to each individual. God is not “all” benevolent. His acts of kindness toward us are perfectly balanced. Consequently, for God there is no conflict between any of these attributes for he correctly applies them in his relationship to us. More on this in a moment.

3. This premise is simply false. The mistake is in the unspoken assumption that “maximally greatest” means having the most of something, as if “benevolence” was a thing that could be collected and weighed. When understood as a function of relationship, we can see that “omni benevolence” would not be a “maximal” attribute but would be a limiting one. If I confront a rapist who is attacking a defenseless old person, the quality of “omni benevolence” would presumably prevent me from stopping him, as I would be required to do some charitable act toward him. But doing so would simultaneously cause harm to the victim, so I would be left with, not a maximal greatness, but a defect. God embodies perfect benevolence. He bestows it were it belongs, and metes out justice where that is appropriate, always achieving a balance that cannot be improved upon.

4. This premise is true. To be God, as Anselm notes, maximal greatness is necessary. The flaw is in failing to grasp what “greatness” actually means, and in failing to see that the supposed “greatness” of “omni benevolence” is actually a limitation.

5. This is true, though I would state it as “perfectly just.” I’ll accept “all just” in the sense that there is no part of God, and no attribute of God, that is unjust. In fact, the whole notion of just – how one person treats another – is merely a reflection of God’s perfect nature.

6. The conclusion is doomed, for the reasons set forth above.

Posted by Al Serrato

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23
Mar

Athiests’ Faith In Science Is Misplaced

asdAtheists demonstrate an amazing “faith” in the power of science. They accuse believers of wishful thinking – or outright foolishness – when believers conclude that an intelligent being is the only reasonable inference to draw from the evidence that surrounds us. Unfortunately, this leads many skeptics to close their minds to proper reasoning, and ironically, leads them into the very error that they accuse the believer of making – the error of placing their trust in something they really haven’t considered.
Here’s why: most skeptics define “faith” as believing something despite the existence of evidence.” Since no one can examine Jesus, nor directly access the time before creation, nor transcend this physical universe and examine what lies beyond, skeptics conclude that there is nothing beyond. And since Christians place their trust in something –Someone – lying behind this reality, the skeptic believes that this is a foolish leap of faith.

Abduction is the process of reasoning to the best explanation from the available evidence. We use this form of reasoning all the time. We see that certain patterns hold true – clothing gets wet when we walk in the rain – and we infer from the presence of a dripping wet raincoat that it is raining outside. We do this intuitively and we take as a given that our sense of reasoning operates correctly to allow us to reach valid conclusions. This is so even though we cannot use reason to prove the validity of reason. Simply put, if I try to use reason to prove that reason is valid I have to presuppose the validity of the very thing – reason – that I am trying to prove. No, reason is a starting point, a given that we must all utilize if we are to discuss – to think – at all.

Christians are not imagining a creator when they look at the evidence of the universe. Quite the contrary: given the nature of the universe – its order, fine tuning and the complex design inherent in life – we quite properly infer that something immensely intelligent and immensely powerful set it in motion. Science seeks to answer the question how was it done? And science performs a very valuable function. But science as a tool for discovering processes cannot explain what first set in motion the forces that it is examining; what the designer sought to accomplish with the laws of nature; and what the ultimate meaning and purpose of life really is.

Consider: imagine a scientist examining the mail he receives every day. Over time, he learns everything there is to know about the type of paper that is used, how the paper was formed, the type of ink, its place of manufacture and its ingredients. Imagine further that he determines how the letters are grouped to form words. Seeking knowledge of this type is laudable. But if the scientist concludes that since he knows all there is to know about ink and letters and envelopes, that there cannot be a letter-sender, or a mailman to deliver the letters, then he has done something worse that making a blind leap of faith – he has closed his mind to the obvious reality of what he is examining. Indeed, the only way the scientist can learn the point of it all, the meaning of the message, is to read what was written, for in it is embedded information, something that simply cannot arise through random or blind processes.

Similarly, an archaeologist examining the ruins of an ancient city can determine the method and manner of construction of the various structures that remain, what types of materials were used and how well they fared over time. She could speculate as to the purpose of the buildings, and what the civilization’s level of technology might have been. But she would be unable to determine what actual purpose the buildings were meant to serve. For that, information from the architects and planners would be needed.

As Christians, we bear witness to a personal God, not because we are grasping at myths, but because we believe the evidence of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection sufficient for us to know Him in a personal way. In other words, we personalize the source of the Big Bang not by myth or wishful thinking but by specific revelation.

In the end, science and the Christian worldview are not in conflict. It is the one who insists despite the evidence that there is no God – and ultimately no one to whom we will one day be called to answer – that is persisting in ignorance.

Posted by Al Serrato

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16
Mar

Why Science Does Not Support Atheism

sfdSecularists are fond of claiming the mantle of science in their discussions with believers. One can often hear derision dripping from their words, the frustration felt over dealing with such “primitive” beliefs. Science and progress go hand in hand, they assure us, toward a future in which the “evils” of religion will be replaced by an age of enlightenment and reason. If only it were that easy.

A spirited exchange to a recent post included a variety of such challenges. For instance, in arguing against the possibility of miracles, the challenger claimed:

“By definition, if these laws of physics or physical constants are broken, then they are no longer constants, they are no longer laws.
If it were possible for God to interfere with any event in the physical universe, it would imply that God was in fact physical and in that universe. Otherwise, laws of physics would be broken. Thus, God cannot affect the physical world.”

This is sloppy thinking, which a moment’s reflection will easily demonstrate. God – if he exists at all – is that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. There is no power he lacks, no knowledge he fails to possess, no ability that eludes him. Yet, the challenger assumes that, after setting in motion rules for his creation, he would be bound by them; unable to affect them. But upon what is this assumption based?

Consider: a computer programmer can write a program in which he embeds various laws or rules. Those rules will apply consistently – unless of course he allows for the rules to be suspended. What this means in essence is that the primary rule – the one that we usually observe – is subject to a greater law or rule – the one that overrides the general or usual rule. What would stop the programmer from doing this? Could the subject of his rules challenge him for being inconsistent? Even if this fictitious programmer created artificially intelligent beings, they would not even become aware of his existence unless he wanted them to be; and then, only to the extent that he wanted them to become aware. He could do what he wanted with his rules and no one would ever know.

The challenger, in claiming that violations of laws such as gravity are not possible, is simply conceding that he has not yet fully grasped the conception of God. For if he were truly considering, through the use of reason and experience, a being capable of willing into existence a universe of this size, power and complexity – simply by thinking it – then creating exceptions to his rules would not pose a challenge.

To this the challenger will cry foul. You can’t, he may claim, depart from the observed rules by invoking other “god of the gaps” rules. This would make a mockery of science. But if there is no God to provide order – to ground the rules – why should I believe that science has anything to teach? Science is simply measuring observations; I must first believe that a rule of consistency applies, so that making observations is worth the effort. The challenger’s unstated assumption- “there can be no exceptions to the rules I observe” – has no weight unless something lies behind the rules, ready to enforce them or give them consistency. If atheism is true, then we could have no confidence in even our thoughts about rules.

The challenger went on, referring to the Bible:

“This is a book that makes people believe that the laws of physics can be broken, that people can walk on water, turn water into wine, build an Ark to house every animal, rise from the dead, the existence of ghosts, souls, an afterlife, etc, etc.? How can you have an intellectual discussion with someone who uses a rule book that’s so disprovable?”

Disprovable? Really? And how would one go about disproving that someone could walk on water? Is this not based on a presupposition that observed laws of nature always apply? But why should someone believe that? Well, if the universe were designed that way, that would be a sufficient reason. But the atheist rejects the possibility of such a designer. Does he not have to concede, then, that he has no basis for believing that the laws we observe are uniform? What has he done to examine every instance – past, present and future – in which any particular law operates?

The challenger is correct, of course, in concluding that proof of God’s existence does not prove that the God of the Bible is he. That much is true. But recognizing the existence of God is a better starting point than by beginning with the conclusion that God is not even possible.

Posted by Al Serrato

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9
Mar

What Christianity Can Teach About Happiness

erNot long ago, a friend sent me a very thought-provoking article about raising kids. Entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” it dealt with “why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.” Many modern parents are attempting to create perfect childhoods for their offspring, and in so doing are creating a generation of narcissists who are suffering higher and higher rates of depression and anxiety. Therapist Lori Gottlieb’s review of both empirical and anecdotal evidence was compelling and she struggled to find an answer to the question posed in the cartoon, at left, that accompanied the piece. Why do so many kids struggle with feelings of depression and of being lost, when they are arguably living in the best of times?

The article was quite thought-provoking and included a number of good suggestions, counseling readers to remember that happiness is not something that we can seek directly. Nor is it something that we can talk into our children. In fact, trying to convince kids that everything they do is “great,” and provide excuses every time they fall short, will set them up for a decidedly unhappy adulthood. In short, this quest for perfection in our kids, and for our kids, is doing them a great disservice.

While I applaud Gottlieb’s contribution, I don’t think her analysis goes deep enough. True, “our children are not our masterpieces,” as she notes. But can she answer why this is so? Other than by seeing the consequences of this form of parenting, is there a way we can know that it is doomed to failure?

This is where Christianity, with its understanding of why things work the way they do, can provide answers that a secular view cannot. If there is no God, then evolution would explain how we ended up in this situation. Our social views are evolving, and presently we are in a time in which being “non-judgmental” and “me-centered” is highly valued. Perhaps some people suffer in this environment, and if enough do, then it will presumably change as time moves on. But of course, with no God to provide meaning, this situation we find ourselves in is neither right nor wrong; it just is. Attaching a value judgment to it makes no more sense than criticizing a wolf for running in packs or praising a lion for stalking its prey.

From a Christian perspective, by contrast, we know the source of this unrelenting desire for perfection. Seeking relationship with us, God has left within us a desire to search for Him, the ultimate fountain of perfection. This desire works in conjunction with our conscience, which provides us knowledge – what we experience as a feeling of guilt – when we do wrong. But we have perverted this desire for Him into the desire for perfection in the here and now, both in our own lives and in the lives and actions of those around us, those we influence like our children. Though we would acknowledge that perfection is not really achievable now, we don’t actually internalize that knowledge, and so we persist in wanting what we can never have. This leads us often to poor choices. Take for example the rising divorce rate; while divorce is sometimes necessary, more often it is a desire to “start over” because we can’t seem to make the marriage, and our partner, perfect. Letting God be perfect is liberating, then, because the pressure to achieve perfection here is seen for what it is – a misplaced effort at best, a violation of the First Commandment at worst.

Christians also know that insisting on achieving perfection now will necessarily lead to unhappiness – the recognition of the gap between what I expect and I what I actually experience. God is the only perfect being, and seeking perfection apart from Him is an effort doomed to failure. Happiness is a corollary of right living, and right living means living in a manner consistent with God’s will. God does not will us to be self-centered; quite the contrary. His will is that we place him, properly, at the center of everything. Consequently, our own happiness should never be a goal in and of itself. The article makes this point quite well.

But why should that be so? If nature were all there is, then pursuing the object of my desires would make sense. I do that with things like food and shelter and other basic necessities. But when it comes to happiness, the more I seek it, the less happy I become. Again, the Christian worldview can make sense of this. We weren’t meant to be “happy” here, at least not in the sense that people have today. This is a waypoint on a journey, and the issue is not whether I have achieved bliss here, but whether I have developed in the appropriate way. Consider, by analogy, the life of the fetus. Is its goal or function to be happy for nine months? If the mother takes care of herself during the pregnancy, the fetus may experience no pain, but the purpose of the in utero time was not to maximize the fetus’ happiness or self fulfillment, but to prepare her for this life. Similarly, while it is better to be happy than to be sad or troubled, it is a mistake to measure the value of our lives by our feelings. There may be times when happiness eludes us, but when we view this as part of the way things were meant to be, it actually helps, ironically, to lessen the unhappiness.

The secularist will probably never understand this. Thinking that science can answer all his questions, he neglects to try to make sense of it all in a broader and more comprehensive way. So intent on studying the leaf in front him, he misses the forest for the trees. And often times, it is his children who will also suffer.

Posted by Al Serrato

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2
Mar

Is Christianity Unduly Harsh?

eeTo the secular mind, Christianity can appear to be a giant schoolyard bully, threatening eternal harm for anyone who breaks his rule. A comment to a recent post reflected this position, and helps to bring into focus the difficulty that believers can encounter in trying make their case:

“How do threats of eternal torment help support your case? OK, I know you hold out the alternative ‘Heaven thing’ and I appreciate that. Sounds wonderful!

But American Evangelicalism is so unforgiving that a full 95% of all humanity will, or has been, relegated to Hell for all eternity. And this judgement is based on a worldview, not even on the merits of your behavior. No time off for good behavior? That’s unbelievably harsh!

So I can be a Hindu with a lifetime devotion to the sick, the poor and the downtrodden, and your message is, “Sorry friend, you’re headed for an eternity of pure HELL! You should’ve gotten your worldview story straight Oh well- you’re screwed forever – tough luck!

Your message may be ultimately true, or false. But is there any question that it’s brutal beyond any level attained by the worse human examples?”

Let’s set aside for a moment the dripping sarcasm, which doesn’t really assist the argument. What’s being advanced in this common challenge rests on some unspoken, and unexamined, assumptions. The first is that the threat of “eternal torment” is part of a strategy aimed at convincing people to join “our” group. Since this message is such a turn-off, especially since its directed at “worldview” – as the writer puts it -rather than behavior issues, wouldn’t we be better off just dispensing with the “fire and brimstone” message?

This challenge has met with considerable success in recent decades. One need look no further than Rob Bell’s recent book which concludes that, in the end, “love wins out” and no one remains in hell. The message that actual and unpleasant consequences may attach to our beliefs, and our actions, is wildly unpopular in a pluralistic culture that values individuality as the highest virtue.

The doctrine of hell can’t be explained in a few sentences; it can’t be reduced to a simple soundbite. To make sense of it, one must examine his own hidden presuppositions about the true nature and purpose of this life and about what the “well-lived life” really looks like. It takes reflection, and it takes seeing – or at least trying to see – from a perspective different than the narrow one that focuses on “me;” on how I can get what I want.

So the challenger doesn’t realize that believers didn’t invent hell – the locus if you will of separation from God – as a marketing ploy. Jesus himself spoke of it – often, it seems, and with a distinct note of warning in his words. Modern Christians have no more right – or ability – to modify or change these beliefs than would a modern vegetarian who claims that offering a meat dish each day spices up a vegan menu. Either one holds to the core beliefs of Christianity or one should question why he uses the label at all.

Which leads to the next aspect of the challenge. Isn’t this unbelievably harsh? That, I submit, would depend on the degree to which we can claim ignorance. The example of the Hindu doing good works is meant to drive home the point. Shouldn’t he be rewarded by a loving God?

Not necessarily. A perfect God may actually expect us to do good, so that doing what is expected gets us no reward. Perhaps instead the question is what we do wrong. Has this hypothetical Hindu done anything wrong in his life? How much wrong should a perfectly God good ignore? These questions help point out the rather obvious point that God may not be grading us on a curve. He may instead have put the knowledge of his law on our hearts, and provided us a means to respond, and then actually be committed to holding us to this standard.

Which leads to a final observation: what part of the natural order makes one think God could not possibly be “harsh?” After all, we live on a sliver of habitable space in a universe beyond comprehension, and most of this planet is deadly for us. “Innocent” people suffer all the time when they, even inadvertently, violate a law of nature. Three people walking on the edge of a steep cliff are all subject to the same result if they slip off the edge – the harshness of gravity going one-on-one with the weakness of the flesh. It doesn’t seem to matter to nature if one was a Hindu doing good works, another a child molester and the third blind and unable to see the edge.

Yes, there is an aspect to Christianity that can appear harsh. Anytime a consequence is imposed, the recipient no doubt feels the same way. But if the warning is sufficiently clear, and the consequence fair and appropriate, then the problem is with the one who continued in rebellion, not with the law-giver. But more to the point: wishing that things were different isn’t much of a basis to stake one’s eternal future on.

Posted by Al Serrato

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23
Feb

Making Sense of Jesus’ Death on the Cross

sfMaking sense of Jesus’ death on the cross can be difficult. For many modern secularists, the notion is, on its face, absurd, posing a stumbling block beyond which they will not venture. In his recent book on agnosticism, author Vincent Bugliosi devotes a chapter to proving that belief in the resurrection is, as he says, “demonstrably false.” But is it?

Bugliosi’s first challenge is a linguistic one. He doesn’t think we should say that Jesus “died” because that is inconsistent with Jesus being “alive” three days later in the same body. But this is, at best, purposely shallow thinking. It is precisely the belief that Jesus died that makes the subsequent resurrection miraculous, authenticating Jesus’ claims to be the Son of God. In what sense was he “dead?” In the sense that every person who ever lived died; the only difference is that, unlike every other person, his body was restored to life in a body that was no longer subject to corruption and death.

Next, Bugliosi takes issue with the Christian concept of original sin, which he claims is an “incontestable implausibility.” Oddly, he accepts the notion that people are not basically good, especially when their own self-interest is at stake, but he asks “what type of monstrous maleficence would cause [God] to give every human an evil nature?” Implied in his question is the mistake that leads to Bugliosi’s confusion: he assumes that “evil” is a thing that God “gave us.” He seems to think that God punished us for Adam’s sin by giving us an evil nature. But this is not what Christians believe. Once again, Bugliosi creates a strawman that he ridicules and then dismisses.

Christians believe that God endowed man with free will. This free will may not be total and complete: there are things that we cannot will, and things that are so contrary to our natural inclinations that we would never choose to will. But the set of things that we are free to choose – whether in thought or in action – includes choices that run contrary to God’s will. This aspect of our nature, like our basic body structure or the faculties of the mind, is passed on through our genes from one generation to the next. Original sin – man’s inclination to act contrary to God’s wishes – is simply part of the nature that we inherit. Expecting it to end with one generation makes no more sense than expecting our children to see with their ears.

Evil is not a created thing that God gave us, like a finger or a wrist. What we call evil is the measure – the result – of a thought or action that departs from God’s will. When a man commits murder, or fills his mind with lustful thoughts, evil is the result. Because God is perfectly just, He cannot condone or ignore these violations of his will. Some punishment must flow to the offender. Separation is the punishment that God has seen fit to employ. But unlike earthly prisons, which are places of anguish, separation from a perfect being results in a torment that human words cannot adequately describe. That God is just in separating himself from wrongdoers is a simple enough notion; it is the same thing we do on earth. That is what prisons are for, or restraining orders. We recognize intuitively that those who choose to use their will to thwart “the law” and hurt people in the process must be separated from the rest, and restrained.

Bugliosi finishes the chapter with more insults: anyone who actually believes that Jesus died for our sins has “something seriously defective about his or her mental faculties – namely, a very severe intellectual hernia.” Jesus’ death on the cross, he claims, was a useless act. But again, he fails to grasp the doctrine which underlies these beliefs. God does not punish “innocent people” for what Adam did. He has given each of us the same free will, and each of us is guilty before him.

There is an equation of sorts which underlies and ties together these thoughts. To maintain his nature as perfectly just, God must punish the wrongdoer. He cannot simply forgive, for to do so – to abandon his justice – would be a corruption of his own nature. But he created us for a purpose, and that purpose was not separation from him. So He provided the means for us to reunite with him. Jesus provides the bridge that we need. Having taken on human flesh, he stands before God as the one human being who never sinned. No other human being can stand before God having satisfied the law and rightly ask for admission to God’s presence. But Jesus did not ask for admission for himself; instead he offered to accept the punishment we deserve and by so doing to overcome the effect of sin on us. We are washed clean in this process, but the washing is done by Christ. Though he died for all, not all have chosen to accept this sacrifice.

This will not satisfy the secularist who sees in this nothing but folly. But a bit of reflection will allow the thoughtful person to see the elegance in this solution. Perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfect love – all finding expression in the person and work of the man-God Jesus Christ.

 Posted by Al Serrato

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15
Feb

Why “Proving” Christianity Is Sometimes Not Possible

sfMany new apologists get right to work trying to convince others of the truth of the Christian worldview. When they meet with limited “success,” they often lose heart. A recent email expressed this view; the writer acknowledged that his inability to convince people that his faith was truth caused him to become discouraged. This discouragement often leads to doubt… and eventually to a loss of faith.

There is, of course, a certain logic to this. After all, ideas that are false – that lack persuasive power- are not likely to be accepted by others. That is one of the concepts that the 1st Amendment supports – the notion that in the marketplace of ideas, good ideas prevail while bad ones are eventually weeded out.

But implied in this understanding is the assumption that the listener will give the ideas a fair shake. If the listener has already decided not to accept the claim, even before he considers the evidence and arguments, then all the persuasiveness in the world will not alter the outcome. Moreover, if the listener is motivated by emotion rather than reason, then evidence and arguments are even less likely to have an effect.

One way to test for this is to ask the listener what it would take to get him to change his view. Oftentimes, it’s not so much the person’s answer that you are looking for but the hesitation in answering, which reveals the person’s commitment to persisting in his views despite the evidence. This is especially evident when discussing “hot button” issues such as abortion. When you see hesitation, or a commitment to maintaining one’s position, then your persuasive efforts will likely prove futile.

As a prosecutor, identifying hidden biases is of great importance. The jury that is selected to consider a case must be open to hearing and fairly evaluating the evidence. Otherwise, the verdict will be a reflection of their preexisting biases and not of the truth of the underlying charge. Whether it’s a case of possession of marijuana, or a decision on the death penalty, it’s simply not possible to overcome strongly held biases. For this reason, much effort is devoted to excusing jurors who will not consider the evidence so that the trial itself is not simply a waste of time. The point of the trial is to determine whether the claims as to what occurred are true – that is, whether they conform to reality – and not a referendum on the wisdom or efficacy of the law. Similarly with apologetics efforts,the point is to demonstrate that the Resurrection is an historical event, so that the listener might then consider the claims that Jesus and his disciples made. A listener who already believes that all religions are bad, or that miracles don’t occur, will not consider the evidence from history.

There are, of course, arguments against the existence of God, or against the truth claims of Christianity. But as a “one dollar apologist,” I don’t often encounter these. Most people I have discussed Christianity with are simply apathetic. They are living good lives, lives that are full of relationship and activity. They have been led to believe that this life is all that really matters, so they try to live it fully and with gusto, never thinking about what lies beyond. Trying to get them to consider ultimate things is often times frightening and off-putting.

The other type of person I’ve encountered is not apathetic, but is instead quite opinionated. He might insist that the “telephone game” is a valid description of how the Bible developed, leading him to conclude that the Bible cannot possibly be reliable. Or he will begin with the firm conclusion that miracles are not possible, so that the core belief of Christianity – the miracle of the Resurrection – is simply not a conclusion he will reach.

This is not to say that we should stop trying to convince people that are open to discussion. The Great Commission directs us to engage, as does 1 Peter 3:15, admonishing us to always be ready to provide a reason for our hope. But it does mean that we should have realistic expectations as to what we can accomplish. We may only plant the seed, and may never know what impact our words or deeds will have somewhere down the road.

And, most importantly, we cannot judge the validity of our beliefs based on the reluctance of others to embrace them. To draw conclusions about truth, we need to consider the evidence for and against the claim. A biased jury will not reach the truth. But by the same token, the mistaken “verdict” of the one who refuses to consider the evidence doesn’t alter the truth either.

Posted by Al Serrato

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10
Feb

Are You Good Enough For Heaven?

ss“Avast yer jabberin, ya bunch a bilge rats!”

The voice sounded strange as it reached into the hallway. The speaker was apparently trying to make a point. “Yer division a booty must be… “ he paused to consider his words, “more equitable if ye be wanting to sail with me.”

He had my attention. I was at a work conference in a hotel, wandering the halls during a break, when I happened across this conference room. I peeked inside. It could have been a scene from the latest Pirates movie. Men of various ages with lots of facial hair, many dressed in striped pants, with the occasional peg leg and hook hand. Yes, I had stumbled across a pirates’ convention, the 350th annual, it seemed, from the schedule which I found posted outside.

The speaker’s topic was ethics. He went on to explain what an equitable share of booty amounted to, in his view, using a very modern looking PowerPoint presentation to punctuate his points.

I caught up with him at the break and asked if he had time for a few questions. He seemed a bit suspicious, what with my business casual attire, but nonetheless willing.

“Seriously,” I began. “Ethics for pirates? I mean, for centuries you guys have been boarding and capturing and enslaving people without much regard for ethics. You’ve been known to rape, pillage and plunder, and your personal hygiene is … not the best.” I quickly ended, seeing that I was crossing a line.

A hurt look crossed his face. “Yer words be stingin,” he began, but my words were nothing compared to his breath. I took a step back and tried not to stare at the parrot on his shoulder. “I don’t suppose ye know bout all the good that we do. Why ar ann’l ball raises thousands for the widows n’orphns fund, and we do lots of behind the scenes work ye never be aware of. Last year alone, we returned almost 30 percent of our captured booty to charitable organizations.”

“Is that a fact?” I asked. “I had no idea. But,” I persisted, “this is stuff that you’re stealing.”

“We make no excuses for that, m’lad. But we’ve been pretty transparent about that from the beginning, ain’t we? After all, ye had no trouble spotting us for who we are. If ye want the real thievin’ ones, it’s the bankers and lawyers ye want to be houndin…” He pointed down the hall to the lawyers’ convention I had been attending.

Yes, of course I’m making this up. But I think there is a valid point here to be made. Human beings have an amazing capacity to judge themselves on a curve. Pirates no doubt convince themselves that they are somehow justified in doing what they do. They may think of harm they suffered when younger, or may feel that life dealt them the hand that they play. And they no doubt have a set of ethics that they follow, however uncivilized it may seem to us. And many, if pressed, would seek to justify their behavior by reference to all the things they don’t do. “Sure, we kill on occasion. But only those who don’t surrender, or those who for whatever reason need killing.” This is the human condition, whether in a high school, at the office, on a pirate ship, or in a prison. We don’t seem to have the capacity to see ourselves for what we truly are.

What does any of this have to do with Christian apologetics? Just this: the number one response of nonbelievers as to why they don’t worry about the afterlife goes something like this. “I don’t know if there is a God, but if there is, he will see all the good that I do and accept me. So, I’m not worried. A good God will see that I am living a good life.”

But holding this view is not that different than the pirates in the analogy above. Compared to others of that ilk, an individual pirate might seem like a good guy. But that hardly would qualify him for life in a peaceful and civilized society. His problem isn’t how he compares to his fellows, but how he measures up to the place he’s trying to get to. He may think himself “good” when in an objective sense he is anything but. Similarly, many people today believe they have a proper sense of what “good” human behavior is, but how can they know for sure when they are mired in the corruption of their nature? And more importantly, have they given any thought to what “perfect” behavior requires? What a perfect being might use to measure admission to His realm?

It’s easy for us to pat ourselves on the back for our goodness. But perhaps we are a bit too smug. Our persistent feelings of guilt serve as a guide – a reminder – that all is not well. They serve to call us to account to the One who left us here, and who expects something of us if we are to be in relationship with Him. These feelings of guilt provide the backdrop of bad news, the kind of news from which we naturally shy away. The kind of bad news that sets the stage for the ultimate Good News of the gospel.

So, next time you encounter this response, you might suggest that the nonbeliever consider his frame of reference. Immersed in a sinful culture, inhabiting flesh and blood bodies whose weakness overcomes the willingness of the spirit, we may be as unable to see ourselves for what we truly are as the fictional pirates above would be. In short, we may not be in the best position to know if we are as “good” as we pretend.

Fortunately, there is a better answer, one that does not require us to earn our way back to God’s presence. But until we see our need for a Savior, we’re not likely to find the answer that is waiting to set us free.

 Posted by Al Serrato

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2
Feb

Should God Have Given Us Free Will?

             er“Do Christians actually believe that it is a preferable state of affairs to have God bestow free will on those he creates, even though it always has and always will result in the atrocities and injustices of life, than for God to not give them free will and simply create humans who always treat their fellow man well?” 

 This is the question author Vincent Bugliosi puts to believers on page 35 of his book The Divinity of Doubt.   “Is free will more important than the absence of pain, misery, death and suffering brought on by the monstrous acts of fellow humans?” These rhetorical questions pepper his entire book; in fact, he uses such questions to avoid the difficult work of actually considering and giving a fair hearing to Christian beliefs. 

Now, on its face, this seems a very ironic challenge. Free will encompasses many things, but at the least it involves the desire to shape one’s own destiny. Free will allows us to make choices among competing alternatives. Our will may not be completely unfettered; there are many things that we cannot choose to do, because we lack the power, or that we would not choose to do, because our natural inclination is against it. But the common human condition, throughout the world and throughout time, is a quest for control; first of ourselves, then of our immediate surroundings and then, far too often, of those around us. The irony is that Bugliosi is no different. He wishes to exercise control over his life and his destiny. When he has “better” ideas, he wills to put them into circulation, trading on his fame in the hopes of shaping other people’s views, and selling books. In fact, at one point in the book, Bugliosi says that he doesn’t want to go to heaven because he doesn’t have any interest in the kinds of things that Christians say are in heaven. But Bugliosi’s ambition is much larger. He wishes to exercise control over all of creation, apparently substituting his perfect world of people who “do no harm” for the harsh world in which we find ourselves. 

So which is it? Is it good to have free will or is it better to never have the chance to write books and persuade people and choose where you will go and what you will do? Indeed, it appears that Bugliosi does not really want to give up free will, for himself anyway. He does want to shape other people’s will, to bend it in such a way that they can never do what he considers to be wrong. But what if writing books against Christian belief offends me? Would it be okay for me to want that choice removed from him? How about if I don’t like any views different from my own? A bit of reflection makes apparent that someone must be the arbiter of what choices are available to us? Christians happen to believe that the Creator – with infinite wisdom – is a better choice than say, Vincent Bugliosi, in making that call.

I also wonder if Bugliosi has thought about what the elimination of free will would accomplish. This of course would not be difficult for God to do. He would simply reoccupy the space He has created between us and Him and would force us to do His will. Whatever God wished to do with us, whatever task He had in mind, we would simply do – without complaining, without resisting, without evading. We would be, in effect, machines. If God ever does listen to Bugliosi and grants this wish, I certainly hope that He also eliminates our self-awareness. I can think of no worse fate than to spend endless time being controlled, directed, adjusted, worked – totally devoid of any ability to plan or to choose or to accomplish.

Bugliosi might object that constraining “true” evil would not be difficult for God. Couldn’t God limit choice so that violent crimes could no longer be committed? And wouldn’t that be preferable? In this, I want to agree with Bugliosi. From my limited perspective, it is difficult to see God’s reasons for allowing suffering. It is even harder to accept it, even with the promise that we will eventually be rescued. But I suspect that God actually does constrain evil. I can easily imagine a world in which the atrocities of the Nazis were practiced on every street corner in every city on every contintent; fortunately, such extreme wickedness is not our reality. But the harm is real, and it is great. There is no denying that.

But still Bugliosi is mistaken in his conclusion. He wishes to use the recognition that God allows evil acts to occur to prove that there is no God. He does this by employing a faulty syllogism.

-An all powerful and all good being would not allow evil acts to occur
-evil acts are all around us
-Therefore God does not exist.

While Bugliosi may equate “evil” with crimes of violence, evil is any departure from the will of God. Some departures are greater and more serious – crimes such as murder and rape – while others are less so – lying to gain an advantage or mocking Christians to sell books. When seen in this way, it is apparent that at some point eliminating choices renders “free will” a fiction. If only choices pleasing to God were allowed by God, then we should dispense with the idea that free will has any meaning. Although difficult at times, I trust that an infinitely perfect God has set the balance where belongs.

In the end, we can’t have it both ways. Perhaps many, like Bugliosi, think they would be happier in a world in which all their behavior was controlled. But in such a world, they would only be happy if they were directed to be; they could not choose happiness. In any case, such a world is not our world, and while this may be difficult to accept, it does not logically prove anything about God’s existence.

It does, however, tell us something about His nature, and what it says certainly grabs my attention. 

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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24
Jan

Intelligent Design Makes Perfect Sense

sdIn recent years, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has cogently presented the argument that the incredible order in the universe must have an adequate cause. Just as any fine-tuned device was designed and manufactured for a purpose, so too does the evidence of fine-tuning in the universe point to a creator God.

But not everyone accepts this argument. Famed prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi contends that agnosticism is the only sensible conclusion that rational people can reach. In his recent book, he claims to apply rigorous logic and common sense to his position, but does he adequately defend this view?

“The Divinity of Doubt” aims frequent belittling remarks at believers and on this topic, we get more of the same. Bugliosi comes out swinging, claiming that the way to defeat the notion of God’s existence in this area of intelligent design is to accept for the sake of argument that he is all intelligent and all powerful and then show that he never would have done what theist’s claim he did. (p. 55) He promises that he will show that ID is self-defeating on its face. (p. 83) His proofs? A series of questions for which he can find no answer.

• Why, he asks, would God create this incredibly complex system of 122 constants to allow for life on earth? Here he is referring to the various constants that scientists have measured, ranging from the tilt of the planet, to the electromagnetic forces to the concentration and content of the atmosphere. With each of these variables, scientists have noted that even very tiny changes in their values would have made life impossible. Why couldn’t God create an earth that relied on none of these things? Was that beyond his power?

• The Earth is infinitesimally small compared to the universe, with its trillions of stars. Why would 99.99999 percent of the universe have nothing to do with life on Earth? What conceivable reason would God have for doing this?

These questions lead him to conclude that an intelligent being would not create something that served no purpose. Therefore, it seems to him, there can’t be such a God.

But let’s take a closer look at the logic he employs. How valid are his premises? The syllogism he employs would break down something like this:

– If there is a God, nature would be simple and consist only of necessary things.

– The universe is vast and complex and contains many seemingly unnecessary things.

– Therefore, there is no God.

Stating it this way shows that Bugliosi’s issue is not his logic; it is the utter lack of persuasive force of his first premise. Since he frames most of his “argument” as a series of mocking questions, he never attempts to establish the validity of this premise. If his premise is false – as a moment’s reflection will establish – then his conclusion finds no adequate support. Using the courtroom language of which he is so fond, he is “assuming facts not in evidence.”

There are many reasons why God could have chosen to create in the way He did, any one of which provides a valid alternative to his premise. For one, as limited beings, we have no idea what other use this universe may have. How could Bugliosi have sufficient knowledge to know which things are necessary and which are not? How could he know whether simple things are to be preferred over complex things? To conclude that only purposes that are plain to us can be valid is rather, well, arrogant. How could he possibly know?

Second, another implied premise in Bugliosi’s argument is that God creating that way – with far more stuff and complexity than Bugliosi thinks is necessary – is somehow wasteful, as if God were some kind of lunatic who built an Egyptian pyramid in order to house a closet. But God is infinite in his power and his creative ability. For such a being, creating more is no more difficult than creating less. It would be like marveling at a computer programmer that filled his simulation with thousands of simulated players rather than one or two. It just isn’t that difficult a task.

Finally, has Bugliosi considered that God might have an artistic side to Him? Is it possible that, with infinite power, He chose to paint a canvas through which we can glimpse both His power and His majesty? Scientists tell us that we are located at a time and place in the universe from which we can gaze back to the beginning. This tapestry of the stars, taken in conjunction with the exquisite order that functions so seamlessly and so smoothly throughout the universe, may simply be a work of art that He wishes us to behold, and to enjoy. It may simply stand as a testament to His awesome creative power and glory. And perhaps as warning, that He is not to be trifled with.

The ancient psalmist had more wisdom than today’s skeptics.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? “

Perhaps that is the message writ large on the night sky.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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17
Jan

Answering Bugliosi’s Unanswerable Questions

ssIn his book “The Divinity of Doubt,” former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi argues that agnosticism is the only sensible position to hold. But the book never gets to the heart of the Christian message. Instead, Bugliosi trots out the usual challenges to faith, mocking believers along the way with taunts about how his questions have never been, and cannot be, answered. Here’s a sampling of his “can’t be answered” questions: At the very beginning of the book, Bugliosi claims that theists have not a single fact to support their position. “By fact I mean a truth known by actual experience or observation. And something that cannot be logically explained in any other way.” (p. 4). Later, he says that the only way to be able to accept evil in the world is if God appeared in the sky and told us that although what has happened doesn’t make sense, its part of a grand scheme for life. (p. 8). Verification about God, he says, is not possible, and most of what is written on the subject is nothing more than “sophisticated ignorance.” He says that what he doesn’t know is “just more of the nonsense I already do know.”(p. 13)

He’s off to a pretty bad start. For someone who no doubt understands proof beyond a reasonable doubt, consider what he has done here: his standard is proof beyond any possible doubt, and his available evidence is those things that can be known by “actual experience or observation.” Actually, it’s even higher – he’s asking for a direct and personal revelation in a way that cannot be denied, such as God appearing to him in the sky. What he’s done in his first chapter is to reveal the depth of his bias, and the impossibility of anyone overcoming it through reason or evidence. There is simply nothing that will satisfy him.

Given his approach, all of history is off the table. He can have no knowledge of Washington crossing the Delaware, because he wasn’t there to experience or observe it. And of course just about everything can be “explained away,” especially if done in a piecemeal fashion. The real question is whether the alternative explanation is a “reasonable” one. After all, in the OJ case, explaining the evidence away as the product of a frame-up could be made to follow the rules of logic; the problem is that doing so, given the totality of the evidence, was not “reasonable.”

Another of his questions is: How God would put people on earth that he already knew were going to end up in hell. “No one in Christianity, to my knowledge, can answer that question,” he says. (p.5). But Christians have answered that question. God has perfect knowledge, because for Him there is no time; there is no before, during or after. For Him, all things exist in His eternal present. But God has given us free will, such that though He can foreknow how things end up, He does not cause us to act the way we do. When I watch the movie Titanic, I know the ship will sink even though I had nothing to do with that result. What the existence of Hell says about the nature of God is a fair question. Wondering why God would set it up this way is too. But concluding that God must not exist – that is simply not a logical conclusion to draw.

Another “deal breaker” for Bugliosi is the Christian concept of prayer. Why would we have to beg God to be what he supposedly already is? If God is good, He will already be willing to give us the good that we are praying for. The question is not the profound contradiction he thinks it to be; it simply betrays his misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer. Prayer is not simply a way of asking God for stuff, like some magical list for Santa. While we can bring our requests to God, prayer is much more. At minimum, it includes giving thanks and giving praise. Doing these things allows us to incline ourselves toward God; to orient ourselves properly with respect to a perfect being, who created us for a purpose. He is, consequently, worthy of our love, praise and respect. Prayer – whether answered immediately, eventually or never – is something that benefits us in our relationship to God. Anyone who thinks it is a way of making wishes come true doesn’t understand much about the Christian view of prayer.

Having made clear that no evidence other than a personal visitation would satisfy him, Bulgiosi moves on in Chapter 2 to explain that Christian writings would be inadmissible “in court” because they all constitute hearsay and are not properly authenticated. Since a jury would not be allowed to consider such documents, these historic texts must also be denied admission in the courtroom of the mind of the seeker. Readers should see this trick for what it is: an attempt to compare apples and oranges. The rules of evidence that apply in court are an excellent way of ensuring a fair trial of an accused. When a crime occurs, presenting evidence that is reliable and properly tested so that the accused is not falsely convicted is reflective of a civilized and fair society; indeed, our system of justice recognizes that many guilty people will go free so that the chances of an innocent person being convicted is minimized.

But this approach to arriving at sound conclusions is not the exclusive way to acquiring valid and reliable knowledge. Nor is it a particularly effective method when the question is not guilt as to a recent crime, but understanding of historical events which occurred long ago. Bugliosi paints with too broad a brush; by his standard, we would be unable to conclude anything about the past, as all surviving documents would be hearsay and subject to some dispute. That is why historians take great pains to collect all the available documents and other evidence and test them for reliability, by comparing and contrasting with other information from the period in question. By so doing, by studying the context and seeing how each piece of evidence fits into the scheme, they reach a consensus as to what occurred and why. None of this would be “admissible” in the way Bugliosi is contemplating. But then, no one expects it to be when they spend a lifetime studying or learning from history.

On the question of “intelligent design,” one of the principle arguments for God’s existence, Bugliosi answers that “physical laws of nature may be responsible for it.” ( p. 23) But this is no answer. The physical laws that are doing this must themselves have a source. This is especially true if those laws didn’t begin to operate until the Big Bang occurred, since scientists acknowledge that these laws came into being at that moment. Bugliosi concludes that we have no framework of reference that tells us that God is responsible for the predictability and harmony of the universe. (p.23) But this is not accurate. Our framework is our common human experience. When we see a thing proceed in a harmonious and ordered way, we recognize that a mind is behind the process. Watches don’t assemble themselves and start ticking. So too with the universe; if there is fine-tuning and order, we should also conclude – absent some more reasonable alternative – that a mind is responsible for what we see.

Bugliosi’s reputation rests on his experience in the courtroom. But if he wants to portray himself as a reasonable presenter of the facts – what every prosecutor must do if he or she is to win the jury – he should take greater pains in proceeding with a fair and open mind. He tips his hand at the beginning of the book. He isn’t going for fair and balanced here – he ends up with the conclusion he started off with, and spends the rest of the book trying to support it. 

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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8
Jan

Bugliosi’s Doubts Are Not Divine

In his book fff“Divinity of Doubt,” celebrated prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi makes the case for agnosticism as the “only intelligent, strong position one can take on the question of God’s existence.” He’s an agnostic, he says, “because my mental faculties tell me the existence of God is beyond human comprehension, not just beyond human cognition, which of course it is and which is too simplistic.” Doubt is divine, he concludes, “in that it impels a search for the truth. It opens the door to knowledge. Faith puts a lock on that door. Indeed, while one is under its spell, faith anesthetizes the desire to seek knowledge and truth. And as knowledge increases, faith recedes.” (p. 258)

A search for the truth. To a prosecutor, this is the essence of a criminal trial. This theme – of searching for and finding the truth – is woven into every successful closing argument. Sadly, it seems that Bugliosi, for all his career success, has gotten things precisely backward as he approaches the most important question any mortal – anyone who knows for a certainty that this life will end – must confront. Dispensing with what he once did as a prosecutor, Bugliosi today stands before a “jury” of readers urging them to not reach a verdict – despite the abundance of evidence – but to be content endlessly criticizing the source of the evidence, and the proponents of faith. In the process, he sets up countless strawmen, only to use ridicule and hyperbole to knock them down. Because perfect knowledge can never be had – because some questions will always remain – Bugliosi urges us to throw up our hands, give up and be smug about knowing that by never reaching a conclusion, we can always appear above it all. His book is a celebration of ignorance and indecision, of never being able to discern truth.

Ironically, this book is not at all the approach that a prosecutor would take. First, a prosecutor would know that some questions will always remain unanswered, despite the strength of the evidence presented. The key inquiry is whether the questions relate to what is really at issue, or whether they are “red herrings.” Second, a prosecutor would have an open mind as they went about preparing the case. Bugliosi, by contrast, has concluded from the beginning that matters of “faith” – by which he means religious truth claims –are simply not knowable. Ignoring the mountains of literature that establish the necessary existence of God, he claims that neither the theist nor the atheist has a single fact to support its position. (p. 4). The book proceeds downhill from there. Using endless rhetorical questions and mocking accusations to belittle anyone who claims to have formed some conclusions about faith, Bugliosi ends up where he began – believing that no one can know what Bugliosi chooses not to accept. But his questions are not new, nor are they that difficult to answer. But they must be approached with an open mind, which he plainly does not have. Perhaps he never did.

Doubt can only be a starting point for the acquisition of knowledge. As he certainly once admonished his juries, doubt gives way to the force of the evidence presented, leaving an “abiding conviction of the truth of the charge.” Opening the “door to knowledge” makes sense only if one intends to enter and explore. To stand on the outside, as Bugliosi does, and insist that nothing is knowable of the other side, is not a triumph of intelligence, but an admission of failure, or of apathy. Contrary to his assertion, faith does not recede with knowledge – it becomes greater. One’s faith in the ability of an airplane to fly increases as one’s knowledge of the physics grows; it does not decrease.

As a prosecutor, Bugliosi would have railed against such facile rhetoric. He would have rightly been disappointed in jurors who returned a verdict of “no one can really know the truth about what you’ve presented,” and seen it as an abdication of their duties, especially if he had presented evidence as substantial as that which supports a conclusion that God is.

And what is that evidence? After all, the question Bugliosi tackles is not proof that Christianity is true, but the simpler question of whether it is “rational” to believe in a creator-God. While he correctly notes the limitations of our ability to “comprehend” God, knowing that a creator must be there is the only rational conclusion that is consistent with the evidence. For countless centuries, these arguments from reason have persuaded not only the vast majority of people who have ever lived, but the greatest scientific and philosophic minds among us. (Books like Alvin Schmidt’s “Under the Influence” chronicle the contribution such believers made to Western culture.) These arguments build on and reinforce each other, enhancing the cumulative effect of the proof. These arguments – from causality; the existence of the universe; the fine tuning in the universe; the existence of intelligent life; the fine tuning of life as seen in DNA; the existence of morality, of music and math and the exquisite order which abounds in nature – provide rational support for the conclusion that an intelligent Creator is at work. Bugliosi never takes on the core of the case. Instead, we are treated to conclusions like: the vastness of the universe is a waste, since human beings can never access it all, so an intelligent Creator is not possible. Does he not recognize the illogic in assuming that he knows God’s purposes, or that physical size means anything to a Being of limitless power?

Unfortunately, this book has the potential to do much harm, as Bugliosi’s rhetorical skill is clearly on display. But unlike a prosecutor on a search for truth, Bugliosi has become a defender of ambiguity and indecision, as he seeks to persuade his jury that, in spite of the evidence, the only smart choice is to remain hopelessly deadlocked.

Posted by Al Serrato

 

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1
Jan

Resolving to Become Spiritually Fit

sssThis is the time of year for resolutions. There’s something about new beginnings that prompts people to want to turn the page and leave behind the shortcomings or disappointments of the past. New Year’s resolutions almost always fall into one of two categories: physical or mental. Gym memberships skyrocket this time of year as, another year older and a few pounds or more overweight, we think about the advantages of becoming slim and trim, of trying to turn back the clock while there’s still time… and energy.

So too in the area of the mind. The countless titles found in the “self improvement” section of the bookstore bear witness to the widespread desire to cast off our old selves and move into the future without the “baggage” that has encumbered us most of our lives. Or it may be something more simple, like improving our memory, learning a new skill, or picking up or improving our proficiency in a foreign language.

Physical and mental fitness are important, but there is a third aspect of the human experience, one involving the spiritual dimension. Though some may deny its existence, the vast majority of people recognize the need for spiritual nurturing and growth. Once addressed by membership in an organized faith system, this need is sublimated by an increasing number of people today, as they reject all forms of organized religion in favor of generic “spirituality.” Sadly, this approach misses a key component of the spiritual dimension, the development of a relationship.

The goal of physical fitness is to increase one’s muscular strength or agility, and improving one’s mental acuity involves increasing knowledge or wisdom or enhancing memory. These are both inward-looking; they deal with self improvement. Spirituality, by contrast, cannot be a self-focused activity. By its very nature, it must necessarily involve the relationship between the part of a person that survives death, and the God who created and sustains that individualized consciousness.

Of the three components of humanity, the spiritual dimension is the most important. Our bodies will eventually fail, as will our minds; in the end, our physical selves will return to dust. This no one can deny. But our souls survive. If we spend our lifetimes looking inward and seeking our own pleasure, craving the fulfillment of our carnal desires, we may end up spending eternity in a similar place – a dimension of “solitary confinement.” Christianity, by contrast, promises something much different – the prospect of a loving relationship with the source of all life and all goodness. But a relationship requires effort; it is much more than a simple realization that another person exists or that a spiritual dimension overshadows our earthly existence. Ask anyone on the verge of divorce, or a parent who is estranged from a child – relationships require both quality and quantity time and they require effort – they succeed only when they are approached in a spirit of selfless love.

The skeptic may protest that even if there is a God, He appears to be silent, that it isn’t possible to have a relationship with a non-physical being. This betrays a lack of imagination. Long distance relationships can exist, in which two minds interact through the written or spoken word. Though not as satisfying as face-to-face contact, lack of physical presence does not prevent the development of a relationship. This may have been easier for previous generations to grasp, since they did not have the benefit of technology which allows us to communicate instantly and “face to face” with people in distant corners of the globe. In those earlier generations, a hand-written letter or the words of a sojourner may have been the only means by which two people, separated by great distance, could express affection or exchange ideas. In a similar “non-technological” way, God has provided us an ample basis for knowing He is there and learning many things about Him. Through His general revelation, we glimpse His immense power and intelligence, the exquisite order of His creation, the sublime artistry which characterizes His creative efforts. Through special revelation – the pages of the Bible – He has “fleshed out” the rest of the story – literally, as it were, through the “flesh and blood” life of Jesus of Nazareth.

But God wants something back from us. He wants us to care. It’s not difficult to understand why. Just ask anyone mired in a relationship bereft of love and affection and passion. Though God needs nothing from us, His desire – His expectation – for us is that we respond appropriately to the great love He has shown us. Revelation 3 speaks of this desire:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. “

Be zealous. An interesting admonition for times of such religious apathy.

As we begin this new year, and a new set of resolutions, let’s keep in mind that the appropriate response to God’s love is to return that love – not in a lukewarm fashion, but passionately, zealously and fully, using our hearts and minds to grow ever closer to Him.

Posted by Al Serrato

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