As a child, I greatly enjoyed fantasy fiction. Dragons, witches, elves, sorcerers, vampires (before Twilight gave those a teen angst transfusion), werewolves, magic swords, ancient curses, were all great fun. (I wasn’t sure about the gnomes – dangerously curious – but who wouldn’t love the hobbits?) The movie Willow was the sort of adventure I enjoyed. Dungeons and Dragons was where I learned social interactions. (Sad, perhaps, but common enough.) Of course wiser heads than mine ensured I could distinguish between make-believe and reality, and I never thought such fantasies were real.
The standard story, duly educated into me, was that people used to believe in witches, dragons, alchemy, demons, etc., but the Enlightenment and modern science had shown that there were no such things. The world revealed by science was sometimes bizarre, certainly (not only quarks are strange), but it bore no resemblance to such legends and medieval superstitions. “Everyone knows,” I well knew, that “there’s no such thing” as a dragon.
Except, of course, that there is. The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard in the world (although not the largest reptile: crocodiles get larger). (more…)
The problem with prolegomena is that they are out of place.
Prolegomena are the things that must be said at the very beginning, before anything else. They are the intellectual throat-clearing before meat of the matter, the logical foundations upon which later assertions will be based. Karl Barth defined prolegomena as the explanation of the path to knowledge (in his case, in the field of dogmatic theology, but it could be taken more generally). The prolegomena explain how the study of a subject ought to proceed, with what method, on what assumptions, in order to succeed at its intended task. But the problem, with due apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, is that we never do start at the very beginning. (more…)
My last post suggested that part of the difficulty in adjudicating the debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is that we mean so many different things when we say “worship.” But there is another problem: how do we know what someone worships? In grammatical terms, “worship” is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object. But how do we know what the actual direct object is of any particular act of worship? The first answer would seem to be that someone is worshiping whom or what they claim to be worshiping. And in cases of frank idolatry, that is undoubtedly sufficient. When an ancient Greek claimed to be worshiping Aphrodite, or a modern Vaishnava Hindu worships Vishnu, there is no reason to doubt them. The greater difficulty is determining the object of worship when people of different religions claim to be worshiping simply “God,” or even “the God.” This question takes us to the center of some tricky problems about meaning and language, especially the meaning of language describing non-physical realities. (more…)
My last post mentioned the dispute as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and suggested some reasons why the answer is not obvious. These in particular have to do with the range of meanings given to the verb “to worship,” and the difficulty of determining precisely the object of worship when that object is unseen. I think the result is that Christians who believe the same theology may nevertheless answer the question differently, depending on the contextual meanings of the words and the philosophical underpinnings. Therefore I suggest we should avoid being dogmatic on this question. I am not opposed to dogma on other questions, such as the “three-ness” (Trinity) of God or the deity of Christ, but it seems to me that whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not a question which admits of a single correct answer, nor is it a question whose answer is essential to the maintenance of Christian faith. (more…)
Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East. With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God. In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way. (more…)
The philosophy professor whom I mentioned in my last post made a fascinating argument against using religious experiences to draw theological conclusions. I partly agree with it, and partly disagree with it, so I thought I would post it here and take it apart.
His basic argument was that people of many logically incompatible religions have strong religious experiences, on the basis of which they conclude that their respective religions are correct. But since they cannot all be correct (since they contradict each other), religious experience seems not to be a reliable method for inferring which is the true religion. Instead, he suggested, people who grow up in a religion typically develop positive emotions for the places, people, and objects associated with that religion, and these emotions then lead to experiences of God’s love, for example, or of the truthfulness of one’s own religion, experiences which may reflect nothing more than a lifetime of developing positive associations.
He described a discussion he had with two Mormons, in which he invited them to make the case for why he should come to believe in Mormonism. With a caveat that it might sound crazy, they described the burning in their bosom which confirmed to them that the Book of Mormon was true. The philosopher, far from being surprised, expressed that these sorts of experiences are exactly what he would expect for someone in their positions. Instead, and I’m sure much to the consternation of this pair of Mormon missionaries, he denied that such an experience lends support to the truth of their religion. People of other religions equally experience feelings which in their view confirm their beliefs, and those experiences are neither more nor less genuine, and neither more nor less confirmatory, than the burning in the bosom of the Mormons. (more…)
I recently heard a philosophy professor present a talk entitled, “Why I am not a Christian.” The title, of course, is taken from Bertrand Russel’s 1927 talk on the same subject, though the professor I heard was not nearly as hostile to Christians as Russell. Nevertheless, in common philosophical fashion he went beyond the apparently autobiographical scope of the title to claim that no one else anywhere is warranted to believe either in the existence of God or in the extraordinary claims made in the Gospels about Jesus. As he reviewed philosophical arguments for the existence of God and scriptural appeals to faith in Christ, he repeatedly said, “I have not found compelling justification,” and he took that to imply that neither had anyone else. There were various other elements of the talk that struck me (and upon which I may at some point comment here), but the assertion of categorical lack of rationality for certain conclusions is something I am wrestling with. (more…)
Teleology is both the hope of Christians and the bane of historians. As a professional historian, I have publicly railed against teleology for the edification of my students. As a practicing Christian, I have publicly thanked God for his teleology and used it to comfort those who are hurting. That sure looks like a contradiction. It struck me as odd recently, as I was buried under a mountain of undergraduate papers and final exams to grade. I don’t think it’s a contradiction, but exploring why not has clarified for me what historians are trying to accomplish, and the basis on which Christians formulate their understandings. (more…)
Marc Bloch, a twentieth-century Jewish historian of medieval France, once wrote, “Christianity is a religion of historians.” He meant not only that Christian scripture and liturgy recount and commemorate historical events, but also that according to Christianity the fate of humanity played out (and continues to play out) within historical time. While it is not true that all Christians are historians, I find as a professional historian that my understanding of the past greatly enriches and deepens my faith. But as a professional, I have been trained to think in certain ways about the past, and sometimes those ways of thought seem to conflict with my faith. What is a Christian historian to do in such cases?
Much of Euro-American culture, and especially its educated elite, has adopted two contradictory and equally useless attitudes toward miracles. The first, starting in mid-1700s, was a full-scale assault on the notion that miracles can happen. The second is a sentimental and vapid dilution of the term to mean anything really good or life-changingly beneficial. I’m not sure when this second attitude developed, but I’d be inclined to date it to the late 1800s as a defensive, and wrong-headed, rearguard action to preserve the language of miracle while emptying it of all meaning. In other words, having conceded the idea that genuine miracles are impossible, some Western Christians domesticated the notion of the miraculous in order to retain the language without its threatening implications. I think this is the wrong approach, and this post will critique the denialist approach, and propose a different definition of “miracle” which I think is more in keeping with its etymology, and with its pre-modern Christian usage. (more…)