CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. A continually updated table of contents for all entries so far can be found here.

The previous entry, discussing metaphorical language use, in relation to religious belief, ended with the observation, "If we believe in God, and if we believe we have communications from Him, then we can trust (given we have already established those other notions) that He is giving us true and useful information of some sort, and so we could reasonably attach great authority to the communication. But it will still be up to us to figure out what exactly is being communicated, and why, and to what degree later information may alter our perception of what is being communicated to us by God."]


I realize this introduces what is perhaps an unwanted level of complexity for Jews, Muslims and Christians (like myself) who would prefer a straight-up straight-out reading of Scripture at all points. I am no different; but I also ought to ask myself whether the designs and intentions of God should perhaps be given some priority to my own wishes on this matter!

And, as a Christian at least, if I do consider our scriptures to be in any useful sense historically reliable (which, as it happen, I do), then I have my answer about God's actions on this subject. The man I believe to be God Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, rarely gave a 'literal' answer to any question, and the information he (or, rather, He) communicated to His followers was not always exactly what His followers thought He was telling them. Evidently, He did not even intend that His listeners would understand Him instantly! He expected them to work it out themselves; and sometimes the greater impact of what He said had to wait until His followers had other data at hand.

Or, as another example, if scientists (atheist or otherwise) now replace what we would call the 'scientific' details of the Genesis creation story (or stories) with more detailed information, then I think I am not working against God's own 'modus operandi' to seriously consider whether their theories help us understand better what God may have had to colorfully abbreviate for the sake of His original audience. If I flatly refuse to take modern science's attempts seriously, because God 'would not' tell our distant ancestors a story which was anything other than the pure 'literal' truth and could not be added to in understanding; then in taking that superliteral stance I would be (as far as I can tell) implicitly denying the divinity of Jesus--because that is not the way He worked!

So if we Christians think Jesus was (and is) God, then yes: God might give us information in this metaphorical, not superliteral, fashion. It remains to carefully check, on a case-by-case basis, to see whether He has done this or not. If I take seriously the message of the Hebrew prophets to Israel, as reported in the Hebrew scriptures, then God evidently communicates very often to us in this fashion: the truths of His messages have to be worked out to some degree by us, and later events and knowledge might bring expanded meanings (fully intended by God) to old communications. [Footnote: as with most contentions, there is a danger of heresy here; but by acknowledging the act of reasoning involved in the process, at least we won't be hampering our ability to avoid or reverse heresies.]

The preceding few paragraphs probably won't be very interesting to my sceptical reader--I still have a large and chewy wad of inferences (metaphorically speaking!) to successfully draw before I could fairly expect it to mean much to you--but the point I am trying to make for this chapter is that recognition of metaphor is not necessarily (or even usually) a means of explaining away religious propositions. Even in our own commonly shared 'mundane' experiences, metaphors usually mean more than they appear to say, not less.

The reality expressed by a metaphor can be (and often is) further along the lines that the metaphor itself represents, precisely because metaphors are shorthand ways of adequately (although somewhat inaccurately) expressing our ideas, to ourselves and to others. As in my solar system example, or the example of my book in your hands [assuming it was printed and bound], one single perception or expression taken by itself may be perniciously misleading; but multiple perceptions of the same event or object will (almost by default) provide us with a better composite 'picture' of what we are trying to think or say, correcting misleading perceptions but very rarely overthrowing completely our entire idea about the concept or object. You can often find authors (like myself) putting this strategy to use with illustrative analogies: different practical examples of the same principles allow us to provide for a richer and fuller understanding of the actual object or condition or idea we are trying to express to you.

Presenting the analogies as arguments, of course, is a conclusion-killing gaffe. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two situations; but even the abstract concept of those two situations illustrates the principle I am trying to get across here: metaphors are about something else--usually something more than the metaphor (by itself) implies. When the metaphors are mistaken for the something else in its entirety (or much closer to its entirety), then a faulty foundation is laid for whatever may follow afterward.

This is one reason why we humans make so many mistakes: the field for error can be very wide, especially when we are mistaking a piece for the whole. But we must be careful, following the same principle, not to automatically toss away every attendant proposition if we discover that someone has mistaken a false image for reality. And this brings me to Lewis' third point:

3.) "Thought may be in the main sound even when the false images that accompany it are mistaken by the thinker for true ones."

I may have my visual proportions mixed up in my necessary mental image of the Earth's proximity and size compared to the Sun; but I can still work the math and get it right. I may get some answers that consequently don't look right compared to my mental image; and of course that may be a clue my associative impression needs improving! But generally speaking it would be fallacious of an opponent of mine to attempt to refute my orbital mechanics calculations by reporting that they don't match my mental impressions, even if I happened to believe the content of those mental impressions (not realizing the content of both ideas must be exclusive). My opponent could use one of my concluded beliefs (A) to correct another related belief of mine (B), and he might rightly fault me for trying to hold both at once; but he could also be wrong to use the falsity of B to argue the falsity of A.

Lewis uses the example of a little girl who thinks that poison, in any given substance, is "horrid red things". She really believes that if she separated the poison out of 'poisonous' solids and liquids, the poison would really look like horrid red things. But an adult who attempted to refute her claim that lye is poisonous by correcting her false belief about what 'poison' looks like, would still be in for a nasty shock if he drank it! Indeed, with a little investigation he might have discovered that she did not believe lye poisonous because it contained horrid red things (which she knows she cannot see in the lye), but because her mother (who may have sufficiently accurate reasons for saying so) has told her the lye is poisonous and she trusts her mother. She thinks the red things are in the lye, not because she can see them, but because she already believes the lye is poisonous; therefore it must (as far as she is concerned) have those horrid red things in it somewhere. Her imagery turns out to be, upon fair examination, ultimately of little importance to the issue at hand: whether lye really is poisonous. If she was corrected about the nature of poison, it would probably not (nor should not) affect her belief about the toxicity of lye. She would know more, but she would not necessarily be refuted in her core belief.

Lewis puts this into religious practice with the example of the story of Jesus' Ascension into heaven. We do not know whether the original promoters of this story believed in a sky palace with God on a throne (they may not have--Jewish apocalyptic can be shown to be quite abstract with relation to Jewish metaphysical belief); but the imagery can stand for something other than this without gutting the main point of their proclamation. Indeed, the type of event which Christians claim happened here--one aspect of the Incarnated God departed from this physical Nature after beginning a drastic change in it, to a new (and superphysical) Nature which shall be progressively made out of this 'older' one, while verifying His identity as the basic Action of what I have been calling the IF--is not something that by its character would be easily perceivable or understood. If it did happen, I would not be surprised in the least if God allowed the witnesses to see the images they eventually reported--that would be the type of image which they (and millions and billions of people after them, even to this day) can understand, in principle, without training in formal metaphysics. It gets all the salient points across; and allows the expansion of detail for fuller understandings of the same event. A facetiously simple sceptic might say that she will believe the Ascension if we ever discover a 1st-century Palestinian sandal in geosynchronous orbit over Israel. That is not the type of evidence I would accept; neither is it the type of evidence I necessarily expect from the story. It is not (as far as I can tell) that kind of event; so it would not leave that kind of evidence.

This leads into the question of what kind of evidence a proposed supernatural event (such as the Ascension) might be expected to leave; which in turn shall bring up the question of possible and plausible relationships between Nature and Supernature (should Supernature exist).


[Next time: evidence, the supernatural, and the burden of proof]

6 comments:

Evidently, He did not even intend that His listeners would understand Him instantly! He expected them to work it out themselves; and sometimes the greater impact of what He said had to wait until His followers had other data at hand.

I never thought about that before. Great observation.

I should also point out, however, that there were apparently some times when He was disappointed that they weren't picking up on something fast enough. {s} "How is it that ye do not understand!?"

So the story, and the history, isn't about some mere mystery-mongering (even in the most positive sense that description would apply.) But learning is a process, which to some extent has to start over in every generation (not to say sometimes starting over more than once with any given person--Ecclesiastes pops to mind as a great example of that from the Bible itself); and we shouldn't be surprised or discomfited if communication requires some messiness. On the contrary, we ought to be expecting that. (Unless maybe we're God Himself; but I'll be addressing that topic a few hundred pages from now. {g!})

JRP

So Lewis is using the horrid red things of a child's imagination as an analogy for why Bible believers should be open to jettisoning the most embarassing questionable statements in the Bible and instead interpret such matters less literally. He (and/or you) are saying that Bible beleivers ought to concentrate on the bigger broader question of what can poison or damn the soul eternally?
Right?

But what in your opinion can damn a soul eternally? Can you create a blog posting listing exactly what can do so? Or perhaps you beleive nothing can damn a soul forever and the truth is so real it can not be avoided eternally, but must in the end be loved as the only "real" thing there was, is, will be?

The story of Moses' "ascension into heaven" was also well known as Josephus demonstrates. As was the story of a voice from heaven calling the Roman emperor Augustus, saying he has gone up. Such stories preceded the creation of the Gospels.

Concerning the case of Jesus' "ascension in the sky past the clouds" in Acts, and the promise to come again one day, descending from the same heights to the earth below, what is someone supposed to believe?

In Luke-Acts Jesus eats fish and asks, does a spirit have flesh and bone? Jesus proves he is not a spirit (contra Paul's "spiritual body" statements which Paul wrote decades before Luke-Acts). And then in Luke-Acts Jesus "led them out to Bethany" apparently walking in his flesh and bones with fish in his stomach through Jerusalem to the nearby town of Bethany and rose into the air there. Acts puts the ascension weeks later than the story in Luke, but no matter. In neither case does this flesh and bone Jesus arose onlookers, gawkers, stares, nobody stars a door knocking campaign, no Hosannas, nor crowds. Here is the most marvelous thing, a dead man walking, defeating death, and according to Luke-Acts only the apostles follow this ever so physical Jesus to Bethany and then he rises up. A quiet jaunt out of town. And you expect people to believe that?

The book of Mormon was founded on as many people testifying to having seen the "golden plates." And we have their signatures, and know more about them than we do about the apostles.

Moreover, as we both admit, heaven IS NOT "up there." Even if Jesus soared at the speed of light after rising above the clouds, he would still require tens of thousands of years before he would have sailed beyond the boarders of the Milky Way galaxy and there's over a billion other galaxies out there.

So why rise at all if heaven is "another dimension?" The story reads like an Indian conjurer's "rope trick" at which the guru "vanishes" after climbing to the top of a levitating bit of rope. But Acts says Jesus rose into heaven to be at the right hand of the Father. And Revelation has a whole city descending from heaven above.

The story of Moses' "ascension into heaven" was also well known as Josephus demonstrates. As was the story of a voice from heaven calling the Roman emperor Augustus, saying he has gone up. Such stories preceded the creation of the Gospels.

A facetiously simple sceptic, ladies and gentlemen! Thanks for extending my example, Ed.

(I'm almost certain I borrowed the "1st-century Palestinian sandal in geosynchronous orbit over Israel" example from Ed in the first place. Gosh, 25% of my life ago now. I feel old. {s!})

{{The story of Moses' "ascension into heaven" was also well known}}

You know what was even more well-known in Judaism than either of those? Enoch and Elijah. From canonical texts, too. Wow. That is so, like, obvious; even a sceptic should have been able to come up with those.

Incidentally, when you only copy-paste material, but don't bother to read what you yourself copy-pasted, goofy results sometimes occur; like repeating the same paragraph verbatim in different places of your post.

{{So why rise at all if heaven is "another dimension?"}}

Gets across the idea of going somewhere 'higher', i.e. more important. Lewis mentioned that, too. So did I, though in more complex terms than he did.

{{The story reads like an Indian conjurer's "rope trick" at which the guru "vanishes" after climbing to the top of a levitating bit of rope.}}

Um, no, genre-wise it doesn't. The ascension of Moses (or of Elijah for that matter) is much closer. (The voice from heaven calling up Augustus, not so close, but still closer than rope-trick stories, even in genre.)

{{Jesus proves he is not a spirit (contra Paul's "spiritual body" statements which Paul wrote decades before Luke-Acts).}}

If you mean 1 Cor 6, that's been dealt with elsewhere. At length. By me. More than once. Here, for example. (Not that I'd expect you to remember it.)


{{Acts puts the ascension weeks later than the story in Luke, but no matter.}}

That's exactly right--it's unimportant if an ascension (visually speaking) was one way Jesus usually departed from them. (It's even tacitly implied by the angels in Acts: this is the last time, He won't be coming back again until the Second Coming.)

{{In neither case does this flesh and bone Jesus arose onlookers, gawkers, stares, nobody stars a door knocking campaign, no Hosannas, nor crowds.}}

A rabbi with a shawl over his head walking through Jerusalem followed by disciples, not calling attention to himself, AND OMG NOBODY GAWKS AT HIM FOR DOING SO!!!!

If you're going to be sceptical about the details of the story, at least get the relevant problem correct: the disciples aren't calling attention to Jesus. Or, more precisely, they aren't calling attention to someone who has the ability to look unrecognizable even to His own disciples while traveling in public (as already established in GosLuke back on the road to Emmaus.)

Or rather, they don't call attention to it until after Jesus departs from them at Bethany. (v.53)

{{what is someone supposed to believe?}}

Well, you could start with not starting there. I don't know why anyone would believe it without having first accepted several metric tons of other things first. I have never once insisted that they should myself.

(Relatedly, you seem to have missed the point of the reason why I was writing this entry in the first place. Not that this is surprising or unusual in the least. {wry g})


{{He (and/or you) are saying that Bible beleivers ought to concentrate on the bigger broader question of what can poison or damn the soul eternally? Right?}}

Yep, rather completely missing the whole point (not only to this entry, but to Lewis' own chapter.)

The short answer is: no. That wasn't what I (or Lewis) was saying. Try again.

JRP

{{But what in your opinion can damn a soul eternally?}}

Not that this has anything specifically to do with the chapter I was posting up there (I don't really address that sort of thing for another several hundred pages): but since I'm a universalist, I'd go with something more like option b.

And since this is an ecumenical apologetics site, I don't usually create main posts on that topic. I do have a couple of main posts that touch on it, scattered around, but I do most of that work over at the EU forum (where I spend most of my free composition time nowadays as an invited guest author.)

JRP

Use of Content

The contents of this blog may be reproduced or forwarded via e-mail without change and in its entirety for non-commercial purposes without prior permission from the Christian CADRE provided that the copyright information is included. We would appreciate notification of the use of our content. Please e-mail us at christiancadre@yahoo.com.