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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

This week, the United States will celebrate our annual Independence Day (July 4th -- the day in 1776 we declared, a bit preemptorily, our independence from Great Britain).

Freedom and independence are words with great political and cultural meaning for us; and not only for us, but for the numerous nations who (more-or-less following our lead) also declared their independence from sovereign rulers whom they believed were oppressing them, both socially and not-infrequently religiously.

Sad to say, Christianity was just-as-not-infrequently the religious oppression the people were revolting against. To some extent this is even true of the United States: even though our own national revolution was grounded on a mixture of orthodox Christianity and nominal deism (such as Franklin’s and Jefferson’s), the history of our country’s settlement in the centuries before the revolution was typically based on fleeing religious (as well as financial) oppression in Europe. And it can hardly be argued that Buddhists or Hindus or Muslims, or witches, or atheists or agnostics for that matter, were the perceived (and even the actual) oppressors in Europe; not in this case. Nor was any large branch of Christianity exempt from the taint of oppressing other people at the time. (Resistance, by flight or arms, to Muslim religious oppression is an earlier story, of the Middle Ages.)

Consequently, I fully expect that our agnostic and atheistic and otherwise sceptical colleagues have a special fondness in their hearts for Independence Day; because those particular first American Christians-and-nominal-deists made a provision of the principle that a person should be free to responsibly follow his or her conscience and best judgments concerning such issues, which are the most important issues of all --  even if that means rejecting the religious beliefs of the founding fathers themselves! -- and even regardless of whether such a rejection involves substituting something better, including truer, as a set of metaphysical beliefs in their place. That evaluation was (in principle, and eventually in practice) left up to the person individually.

Nor am I writing today’s essay in order to altogether condemn such rejections. I have always consistently (even religiously!) insisted of ally and opponent alike, that insofar as the person is walking according to what light she can see and is looking for more light thereby, then I consider her my sister, whom I should support with my life (if it comes to that), even if she does not recognize me for her brother.

The people I have problems with are the ones who, on any side of any aisle, would mire us in fog. That attitude is worse than an attack against me, which I care little for; that is an attack on my sister-in-heart, condemning her to hopelessness. And I am not remotely tolerant of that.

Having said all this, however: as a metaphysician, I am aware that many people are not aware, that notions such as ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ are rawly metaphysical claims about reality. They are also claims which, in regard to our relationship to the evident system of Nature in which we live, can only be affirmations, not only of supernaturalism (of one or another kind), but of supernaturalistic theism (of one or another kind).

Only a self-existent fact, dependent upon nothing else for its existence, can truly be independent. We ourselves, however, are clearly not Independent Facts of that 'ontological' sort: we obviously depend upon at least the system of Nature for our existence and abilities, to at least some large extent. What can be coherently meant, then, by freedom and independence?

The first answer must be, that since we are not 'ontological' Independent Facts, we are not and can never really be maximally independent.

That may sound unfairly restrictive. But once the logical implications are reckoned up, whatever worldview we accept, we aren’t going to be escaping from this fact, any more than we are going to be escaping from whatever Independent Fact ultimately grounds all existence. Proposing that Nature is merely illusion may seem an escape, but that proposal leads eventually but directly to the notion that all persons, except perhaps the thinker herself, are also equally illusionary: at best the thinker sacrifices the reality and thus also any amount of freedom of other people for the thinker's own freedom -- and the thinker might even take that so far as to claim the thinker herself only exists as an impersonal reality which ultimately does nothing including having no real beliefs! But at best along this route it still remains true that in no real sense (if this idea was actually true) can"we", plural persons, be maximally independent. Positive pantheism (where only one person is all that exists in reality) and negative pantheism (where not even one person exists in reality, and even the evident system of Nature is only an illusion in the non-existent minds of non-persons), logically cannot ever be a philosophy of liberty and justice for all.

Nor would this concept be improved by the notion that two or some other limited number of IFs exist, independently of each other, upon all of which Facts we are dependent. If we ourselves depend on only one of those IFs, then for all practical purposes we might as well be talking about a single IF anyway, and ontologically we still would not have maximum possible freedom. But even if two or more apparently-only-human thinkers were the two-or-more proposed IFs of existence, those persons would still exist within a common overarching shared reality which was not themselves: they would exist within the one and only single Independent Fact, and be dependent upon that for existence, after all. (I discuss this more directly myself as part of an ongoing series of metaphysical argument here.)

Very well; then what if Nature is the IF? We will recognize, realistically, that we humans will not be independent of Nature in any ontological fashion. (The alternative is an anti-realism where all evident systems of reality can only be utter illusion.) But, is there not some kind of meaningful freedom, a derivative independence so to speak, which we can still coherently propose of ourselves in relation to Nature?

Such a derivative freedom would depend, and must depend for its possibility, on the intrinsic characteristics of the IF.

So, to take a very pertinent example: we are fond of using the phrase ‘to make free’. But if by ‘make’ we think in terms of force instigating reaction, then clearly there can be no freedom at all, even derivatively, in such a reality. I somewhat doubt we could even have the illusion of freedom, for the recognition of an illusion as such depends on being able to distinguish between reality and only the appearance of a reality. Such an ability to distinguish, however, depends itself upon the very freedom to act, instead of merely to react, which is now being questioned; or else the consideration has been put back one stage for no gain.

This highlights a crucial tension which must be resolved in metaphysical accounts of freedom, when discussing derivative creatures such as ourselves: we, our selves, are dependent for our existence and capabilities, on something other than our selves; thus any freedom we have must itself, paradoxically, be dependent on something other than our selves. But how can this be a legitimate paradox, and not an outright contradiction to be rejected?

It should be clear in any case, that if the IF’s intrinsic existence only involves mere power-effect, then only mere power-effect is responsible for our existence and capabilities. We cannot be even derivatively free, if such a reality is true. It should be just as clear, that if the IF's intrinsic existence involves no behaviors at all, then neither can it behave to produce or generate derivative persons! -- if it does not create there can be no creatures, and if it does not behave there cannot be even one single person, therefore all persons (including the thinker) must not exist. This is hardly a conclusion any real person could validly arrive at, of course!

Moreover, it should be clear that if the IF is atheistic (aside from questions of naturalism vs. supernaturalism, whether only one level of reality ultimately exists or subordinate systems of realities substantially different from the ultimate IF), then there can be no doubt as to whether the IF’s intrinsic behaviors, upon which we depend, are at best anything other or more than mere power-effects. By excluding, per hypothesis, the notion that the IF itself has free will, we exclude the notion that the IF may in some way choose both to grant this gift to a derivative entity and also to somehow voluntarily reduce its own merely direct control over the behaviors of this entity. (The two grantings might be the same grace, looked at from different perspectives.) Nature is not going to make personal sacrifices for our sake, if Nature is not a personal entity. But neither is the problem removed by proposing an atheistic supernature with either an equally non-personal natural system derived from it (in which we live) or else a personally sentient and active natural system derived from it (for such a created pantheism only puts our problem back one stage for no gain.)

If I take my freedom seriously, then -- and I do, especially as a necessary presumption I find I must hold in order to be engaging in any argument -- then I should conclude from the presumption of my freedom, that the IF must be theistic.

But does this mend matters much? The previous deadly question can be asked just as pertinently: if God is ‘making’ me free, then is my ostensible freedom meaningful in any way?

If I answer, as before, that it depends on whether I consider the intrinsic self-existence of God, the final reality, to be about mere power-effect... well, we are talking about the ‘omnipotent’, aren’t we? And if we aren’t, then at most while we may be talking about some conscious intentional active entity, we aren’t really talking about the IF anymore, but about some subordinate entity instead. (Which, incidentally, is why I have insisted that one way or another Mormons are not talking about the final IF of reality; but the IF is what I am interested in, especially as a metaphysician.)

To sceptical criticisms such as these, I am entirely sympathetic, and even ready to agree -- despite being myself a theist! (I feature a whole entry agreeing with such criticisms from the particular standpoint of ethical grounding here.) If God, in His own self-existence, is only an active sentience causing power-effects in whatever creations He creates, then my apparent freedom is just as illusory as it must be under atheism. It isn’t even a real-though-derivative freedom. And I am only a puppet; at best a fictional character like the characters in one of my novels.

But then, so much for the relevance of any 'argument' 'I' may be making, including the ones I have been making up to this point! Such a proposal violates the Golden Presumption of rational thought: that I (and you, my reader, for sake of rational discussion) can act -- that even if derivative, we still are somehow free.

Yet, didn’t I say near the beginning that the claim of our freedom and independence -- a claim we celebrate in the United States every July 4th -- is itself a claim not only of supernaturalism but of supernaturalistic theism?!

If I am real and am more than only a knee-jerk automatic reaction in a system of non-rational reactions and counterreactions, then I must be supernatural in some constituent way to that system of non-rational reactions (even if I am also largely constituted by that system and its behaviors).

Furthermore, if I am real and more than these things, yet am not myself an Independent Fact (which is obvious), then God must also be real and must be the IF, with Nature (where I agree this exists) being a subordinately created system, along with myself.

The argument only breaks down where God’s existence is regarded as being most basically the forcing of effect.

Therefore, insofar as I recognize the presumption of true (if derivative) action ability to be required for making any argument per se (whether the argument is mine, or an ally's, or even an opponent's), I conclude that God’s existence must not be most basically the forcing of effect. But how can this be?

I find the solution through considering whether the IF is dependent upon itself for its own self-existence, or whether if instead the IF is not even dependent upon itself for its own self-existence. Each of these options resolves the problem of mere force-effect being intrinsic to God’s self-existence; but each option does so in very different ways.

The latter position, which goes by the technical name ‘privative aseity’, essentially denies that even God’s own action is intrinsic to God’s own self-existence. If this sounds rather more like a static atheism than theism -- I agree! Nevertheless, it is also, ironically, the position that has been usually taken by theistic philosophers, since the days of Aristotle. (Whether they were misunderstanding what he meant is beside the point; though the debate over whether Aristotle was or wasn't a theist after all might not be entirely beside the point!)

If the IF does not act at all for His (or its) own self-existence, then of course the IF’s existence must not be most basically the forcing of effect. But then again, other problems begin to emerge which, while not immediately inescapable, will eventually resolve into effectively proposing atheism. Since I already conclude on other grounds (ones logically more prior -- and ones that involve positively respecting the existence of even my opponents as responsible persons), that I should believe not-atheism to be true instead, then I am inclined to reject privative aseity and consider the other option of self-existence.

The other option, is that God’s own action is intrinsic to God’s own self-existence -- technically known as 'positive aseity'. (That the IF is going to be paradoxically self-existent in any case, is something we will be required to logically accept whatever else we believe to be true, once the implications have been followed out; so I am passing over this potential difficulty, not without some sympathy, but for sake of relative brevity.)

On the face of it, this proposal should look more immediately theistic: even if I decided (which I would, for a technical reason I will not go into here) that I should accept positive aseity to be true, and yet still tended (which I don't) to believe atheism, I think I would find it more and more difficult to maintain an atheistic belief, the longer I consistently held to positive aseity.

But what positive aseity involves, is nothing other or less than this: the one and only God Most High is (borrowing biological language for a semi-anology) both actively self-begetting and actively self-begotten. We are talking at least, then, about God the Father, and God the Son, as nevertheless being the singular Independent Fact.

Normally I would discuss the option of modalism here. Instead, I will abbreviate to the result I already know (from experience) I will reach if I do: the Persons must be distinctively real as persons, even though they constitute one substantially unique reality. They cannot be like two of the three or five ‘aspects of the Goddess’ in some popular mythologies; or rather, the Persons are aspects of the singular God but also more than only aspects. The persons are to be regarded as distinctively real Persons, in a personal relationship with one another, at and as the ground of all existence.

According to this concept, even though the Independent Fact does act (and so in that regard exercises power) in order to be eternally self-existent, this intrinsic action of the IF is itself an interpersonal relationship. The Father actively begets the Son, the Son actively concedes to the Father, so that the circuit of self-existence will be complete and completely active in one substantial unity.

If power-effectment then (to coin a term), is an interpersonal relationship at the most foundational level of reality, restricted only in the sense that self-existence chooses to not cease existing and cannot choose to simply exist and also not exist simultaneously (on pain of contradiction of ultimate reality, which is itself), then the first hurdle has been cleared: my existence as a person does not depend on mere reaction to stimuli, whether atheistically or by mere monotheism. Consequently, neither would any derivative freedom I am given by God -- to exist as a real boy, not as only a puppet.

I do not say that this is the end of the difficulties. I would (and do) need to work out other implications and corollaries from this, as a beginning of understanding the process of creation distinct from self-existence -- a creation which I find includes myself (as a not-God entity).

But I can say from here, that insofar as I presuppose my freedom in some meaningful fashion -- the same freedom any atheist, agnostic or other sceptic presupposes and indeed insists upon, in standing for what they believe to be factually correct -- then I find I am robustly asserting a reality’s truth that is not only supernaturalistic, and not only theistic, but at least bi-nitarian. (I haven’t discussed a Third Person yet, because as far as the argument has gone here I do not discover such a person. This does not mean I would never reach such a conclusion from inference, however; refer to my section of chapters on "Ethics and the Third Person", especially from this entry onward.)

Only in orthodox Christianity do I find these precise claims also being made by people who, in turn, are drawing inferences from data purportedly revealed in a historical story: which in fairness should dramatically increase my respect and regard for that general claim of special inspiration!

On the other hand, if (as some Christians prefer to do, though this is not my own preference) I began with the orthodox Christian metaphysical system as a presumption, then personal derivative freedom of the only sort that can be coherently available, even to a proponent of atheism, is provided for as a logical corollary of the worldview.

(Actually, such freedom is necessarily presupposed even to presuppose the worldview, which leads to what I regard as major problems of circularity; so I personally do not recommend proceeding by this route. But to the extent that some Christian philosophers insist on doing so, I affirm, somewhat tautologically, that such freedom is in fact specially included in the package!)

Which leads back to the grief of my initial remarks: Christians, who of all people ought to have known (and know) better, have still insisted on religious oppression throughout our history. Such oppression is not only immoral, it directly contravenes the very doctrines we profess to hold and cherish as truths. Sceptics are entirely correct to account us as hypocrites when we advocate, and have advocated, such things; and I cannot personally find it in my heart to blame them if they turn with loathing from the fruit we have spoiled (a fruit spoiled, I would say, by the persistent technical heresy of gnosticism, insisted upon by us as a safeguard we ourselves ought to have rejected), and reject our attempts at linking freedom -- including the freedom cherished and died for by our ancestors, in order to secure the blessings of liberty today in these United States and other nations -- with a system they find through simple (if occasionally oversimple) historical polling to have been, with some regularity and in some ways, an enemy and oppressor of freedom.

It is in honor of such sceptics that I am writing today’s entry. Yet it is also precisely in honor of such sceptics that I am, in fact, an orthodox Christian apologist. Against the abuses of our history, I urge now and always: please, do not give up hope.

'Christianity' is not the heart of freedom, whatever some uncautious apologists may have said to you. And you are correct to complain when Christians try to promote it as such (for this is the heresy of gnosticism, among other things.)

But God, the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit, too) is Himself the very heart of freedom. And He gives His very life for your freedom, too: cherishing you, yourself, whoever you are -- forever.

God’s hope, then, to all our readers, around the world, on this day, and every day.

Jason Pratt
July 4, 2014
(revised with some grammatic, punctuation and clarification updates, from 2008 edition)


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