CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The entry below was eventually substantially revised for an article for the Christian Research Journal.


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Is slapstick comedy unbiblical or immoral? Is it a sin to laugh when Bugs Bunny blasts Elmer Fudd with his own shotgun? And more broadly, is it wrong to enjoy it when other people suffer, even if (we might say) they "deserve" it?


These seem like odd questions, but they were raised of late in the context of some of my YouTube videos, in which I freely make use of outrageous physical humor which resembles that found in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. And closer to home, my local ministry partner Carey and I have discussed the enjoyment of reality television programs like Survivor, in which contestants are frequently subjected to public humiliation. According to some, the sin here concerns what some term schadenfreude -- a German word that refers to pleasure felt at someone else's troubles. According to my YouTube critic, we enjoy seeing Elmer Fudd get shot because he is suffering.


To answer this point, I relied on my own (admittedly layman's) knowledge of the animation industry, and then discussed the matter with a longtime reader of Tekton who is a Hollywood insider with professional credentials in animation. The results of this are that the basis for our enjoyment of this form of humor, which I too have employed, is not the suffering of others but rather that it is comic precisely because it lacks suffering. But TV shows like American Idol do raise some serious questions for the Christian.


As we know from news stories, a real shotgun blast causes serious damage to flesh and bone. Elmer Fudd comes away from such a blast with nothing worse than torn clothes and gray skin. He does not cry out in pain, and nor does any blood spurt. The intrinsic immortality of cartoon performers, and their ability to walk away from such scenes and return in the next one fresh and unharmed (or at worst, encased in bandages that they can immediately shake off and come out of whole, like some sort of revivified Pharaoh!) are the true source of this type of humor.


Of course, there is a certain matter of degree involved here. "Slapstick," a related genre, can refer to Moe poking Curly in the eyes; but it also can refer to humor such as depicted in America's Funniest Home Videos, where the pain can be real. And, it is fair to say, that the lower the pain the greater the laughs. Under such circumstances, we are not laughing at misfortune, as schadenfreude would have it; rather, we are laughing at misfortune not ending up worse than it could have been, which really renders the laughter a sign of relief and not joy at pain.


What, then, is true schadenfreude? For an answer to this I picked up the highly recommended Joy of Pain by Richard Smith (Oxford University Press), which is regarded as a respectable and leading treatment of the topic. It comes as no surprise that Smith does not use either Stooge-like slapstick or cartoons as examples of schadenfreude -- except to the extent that certain cartoon characters (like members of the Simpson clan) engage it in their treatment of each other, but not in terms of what the audience experiences and not in terms of what would be regarded as unique to the cartoon genre. The classic examples of schadenfreude from television are rather to be found in programs like American Idol, as when a contestant falls flat on his face. And how would this tie in, if at all, to the sort of cartoonish antics used by Bugs Bunny or Popeye, and what does it say to the Christian about enjoying such things as that, or slapstick comedy, or even American Idol?


Misfortune or humiliation happening to others can make us feel superior, and lead to schadenfreude. This sort of experience may indeed be ripe for sin; however, it would rather strain credulity to suppose that anyone gains any sense of "superiority" from watching cartoon characters bash each other with mallets, or even the Three Stooges poking one another in the eyes. I would regard any such claim as a strained effort at psychology; and we would be told, by those who prefer to argue about it, that we are harboring "secret" schadenfreude and not realizing our doing so. At such points the matter becomes akin to history as written by Dan Brown: The conspiracy covered up the evidence, then covered itself up to make sure we wouldn't know what it did, so, it is little more than a begged question.


The bottom line is that it is difficult to argue that a person can feel "inferior" or "superior" to a fictional character. The most that could be said, perhaps, is that one imagines one's despised neighbor to be much like said character, and what we really want to feel superior to is the real-life person who has (whether in reality or not) the same traits. In other words, the fictional character becomes a proxy for schadenfreude, not it's true or actual object.


In contrast, it is quite possible for this experience to legitimately emerge on a showing of a program like American Idol, and encourage sinful thoughts. It is readily conceivable that one might envy, and feel inferior to, someone who performs well on the program, and then delight in their failure to perform at a critical moment. What this suggests, then, is that (as is often the case) it is not the object that is the problem, but the person who makes use of the object. It is akin to Paul's attempt to sort out the question of who should eat idol meat. If you watch American Idol to see people humiliated - you probably shouldn't watch it. (If you watch Popeye cartoons to see Bluto humiliated...there is probably something much deeper wrong with you than schadenfreude!)


Smith also refers to a "superiority theory" of humor, in which it is maintained that "humor has social comparison at its core." A related theory is that some things are funny because they make us feel superior.


Here again, it is impossible to dovetail our subject into the issue in any realistic way. Elmer Fudd, and Moe Howard, are not "safe" targets; they are phantom targets. They are not members of any group "disliked" by anyone. (Again, if someone thinks so, their problems are much more deep-rooted than anything we can discuss here.)


So then: Is there indeed anything in the Bible relevant to this emotion? No, not directly, but we do know that the Bible speaks of justice being a "joy to the righteous," (Prov. 21:15) and also says that those who rebuke the wicked will have delight (Prov. 24:24-25). This is probably as close as we will come to what we call schadenfreude in a good sense. (In contrast, the "bad" sort of schedenfreude might be covered by 1 Corinthians 13:6, which warns us to not rejoice in iniquity.)


How then does, or can, this relate to our subject at hand - fiction? Again, I would say only in a vicarious sense, at best. A bad guy like Yosemite Sam, we may say, gets what he deserves when his own rifle goes off in his face, but these are not only phantom targets, they are phantom injustices. At most, these gags may remind us that we would like to see justice done in real life.


This is especially the case because, as Smith points out, this sort of schadenfreude emerges most often when our target is convicted of hypocrisy, as was the case with Jimmy Swaggart. Yosemite Sam is a roughneck, but he is not a hypocrite: He doesn't condemn others who shoot varmints! It is also at its height when the subject is someone evil, as is the case with the reality TV program To Catch a Predator. Yosemite Sam is a "bad guy," sure, but it would be excessive in the extreme to apply the term "evil" to him.


We will close this examination with a comment from my friend in the animation industry. As a response to the criticisms I encountered from the objector I referred to above, he told me about one of the older (black and white!) Popeye cartoons which seemed to be a response to those who thought that the point of cartoon violence was to enjoy schadenfreude. The title of the episode was It's the Natural Thing to Do, and it begins with viewers of the cartoon requesting by telegram that the characters stop fighting and act more refined. The bulk of the story thereafter shows the threesome of Popeye, Olive, and Bluto clumsily trying to act more "refined" by wearing tuxedos, engaging in small talk, and consuming sophisticated appetizers. The threesome end up bored and unable to cope with refined behavior, and Popeye and Bluto quickly return to fighting each other...and enjoying such behavior. It can hardly be said that we could take pleasure in this sort of "pain"!


The pleasure in this genre, then, cannot come from schadenfreude, least of all from what Smith describes as its "dark" side; rather, it comes from absurdity, and from reversal of expectations, and surprise. As noted, it is certainly possible that someone uses the sufferings of a character like Daffy Duck as a proxy for their desire for someone they know, who is like Daffy, to suffer ("He sure reminds me of my boss"), but this is clearly a case of an innocent surrogate taking the blame for the guilty party. There is nothing sinful about laughing at gross physical comedy.


 




Recently a friend on Facebook argued that Christians have no business declaring the Resurrection of Jesus to be the most probable (a posteriori) explanation for the relevant facts, since they are unable to first pin down the prior probability of the Resurrection independent of those facts. I think that's a reasonable enough objection and deserves a reply. After all, posterior probability by definition is a function of both likelihood on the evidence and prior probability.[1] Clearly, then, one cannot determine posterior probability without some idea of the prior.
 
My friend went on to say that the prior probability of a hypothesis is typically established as a ratio of previous instances of the event and total opportunities for the event to have occurred: "Normally we determine the probability of X by how many occasions of X we have seen out of how many opportunities for X there have been. Is the resurrection of Jesus some kind of exception?" This amounts to an appeal to frequentism for finding the prior. Right here is where I begin to take issue with the typical skeptical-Bayesian approach to miracle questions like the Resurrection. What appears missing from so many of these calculations is any consideration of relevant background knowledge. I do agree with Swinburne when he says that "any division of evidence between e [observational evidence] and k [background knowledge] is a somewhat arbitrary one."[2] That said, numerous facts indirectly relevant to the question of the Resurrection are too often overlooked, perhaps lost between very specific, directly relevant evidence (like the empty tomb or post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to the disciples) and very general knowledge about the world.
 
First, there are the evidence and arguments from natural theology that suggest the existence of God. Evidence in the way of fine-tuning in the physical universe, specifiable complexity of biological systems, and the universal moral intuition of human beings, among other things, suggests that the probability that God exists is quite high. Moreover the prophetic history of Israel, in which the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world and then re-gathered to her ancestral home in the "last days," suggests the existence of the God invoked by Jesus in particular. Though it is certainly right to bear in mind the number of previous recorded and confirmed resurrections in history (arguably zero), the evidence for the God of Israel is important information to bring to the question of prior probability.
 
Next, consider the particular personality and historical circumstances of the central figure involved. The question before us is not, "What is the probability that some random guy rose from the dead?" but "What is the probability that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead?" I do not dispute that the probability of a random guy rising from the dead is negligible. But from all indications Jesus of Nazareth was not some random guy. Jesus claimed for himself, both explicitly and implicitly, to be the Son of God and the King of the Jews, the Messiah; and elements of his life indeed fulfilled various messianic prophecies from the Old Testament. Jesus was widely reported by followers and detractors alike to have performed healing miracles and miracles of provision. (The Pharisees attributed these to the work of Beelzebub, but did not deny their occurrence; and the later rabbis of the Tannaitic period likewise attributed the miracles of Jesus to "sorcery.") In addition, Jesus frequently foretold his own crucifixion and resurrection – most often to disciples who refused to believe it. These considerations together would seem to make the Resurrection of Jesus much more antecedently probable than the resurrection of some random guy.
 
Finally, I would suggest there is precedent for a miracle, even a "raising of the dead" of sorts, in the origin of life. The fact is that at one point in our prehistory a dead collection of elements became a living organism – whether by God breathing life into the "dust of the earth" as recorded in Genesis, or by some sort of chemical evolution. And of course no origin of life event has ever been witnessed by anyone (not even in principle). The prior probability of the origin of life just before life actually originated therefore must have been at or very near zero. Yet here we are reflecting on the fact that life originated. Thus our continually being alive constitutes evidence strong enough to overcome the seemingly overwhelming prior probability against life originating. In a very real sense the origin of life is evidence of a miracle.
 
Taken together, these background factors arguably make the prior probability of the Resurrection much higher than any prior probability that would be reached by a frequentist interpretation of probability alone. When that higher prior probability is conjoined with a similarly high likelihood ratio (a measure of explanatory power)[3], the posterior probability that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead increases accordingly. I would argue, in fact, that while intuitively implausible, the Resurrection is evidentially probable. This is just the sort of thing we should expect of a God who intends to reveal himself through the "sign" of a miracle in history.



[1] This is essentially an informal statement of Bayes' Theorem,
 
                         P(E│H & K) x P(H│K)
P(H│E & K) =   -----------------------------
                                   P(E│K)
 
where P(H│E & K) is the posterior probability of hypothesis H, given new evidence E and background knowledge K; P(E│H & K) is the probability of the evidence given the truth of the hypothesis and background knowledge; P(E│K) is the probability of the evidence given background knowledge alone; and P(H│K) is the prior probability of the hypothesis, again conditional on background knowledge.
 
[2] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (New York: Oxford, 2004), p. 67.
 
[3] See "Understated Evidence and the Resurrection of Jesus" for reasons to think that the explanatory power of the Resurrection hypothesis is very high relative to competing hypotheses.
 
 
 
 

Visualize in your mind a geometric shape: a square. What image comes to mind? If you are actually visualizing a square you will see a two-dimensional shape with four right angles (90 degree angles) and four sides of equal length. If you don't have four right angles but have sides of equal length, you don't have a square - you have a parallelogram. If you don't have sides that are equal in length but have four right angles, again you don't have a square - you have a rectangle. In fact, unless you have a two dimensional shape with the aforementioned properties, you simply don't have a square - you have something else - because the definition of a square requires four sides of equal length and four right angles.

Now, consider the number three - not the written Roman numeral, but the actual idea of three things - and it doesn't matter the nature of the three things being counted (be they physical, non-physical, ideas, etc.). To go from two things to four things, three of the things has to be crossed to get to four. It is difficult to imagine three not existing. Nothing less than three can fill the role of three.

Several months ago, I wrote what I considered to be a fun little post about Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction, and the statement by the brilliant Stephen Hawking about the nature of multiple universes.  He said that in the billions of universes that exist in the multiverse, at least one of those other universes will exist a world in which Zayn Malik did not leave One Direction, and so the band is still together in that universe. But I can imagine a possible universe where Zayn Malik is no longer a member of One Direction - in fact, I can imagine a universe where Zayn Malik never existed at all. But I cannot imagine a world in which a square has less than four equilateral sides and four right angles. No matter what universe the square exists in, it must have those characteristics to be a square. No mattr what universe we look at, there must be a notion of three and it cannot not be.

The idea here is that there are certain things that are necessary to exist. Numbers, geometrical shapes, and the laws of logic are all examples of things that must exist in any universe that must exist. They are "necessary" to any possible universe. And it is this same necessity that is at the heart of Alvin Plantinga's ontological argument.

Except among a few hardcore atheists, there is no question that Dr. Alvin Plantinga is one of the foremost philosophers in the world when it comes to religion. In reviewing his 15 page CV (which can be found here), I note the only negative that appears is the unfortunate fact that he received his Bachelor's Degree from the University of Michigan. But other than that, he is the author of multiple books and articles, and has been part of a large number of Named Lectureships at universities ranging from Oxford, Glasgow and Cambridge to Wheaton, Princeton and of course, The Ohio State University. No less than Time Magazine has identified him as "America's leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God."

Plantinga's argument reads like this:

Premise 1: It is possible that God exists.
Premise 2: If it is possible that God exists, then God exists in some possible worlds.
Premise 3: If God exists in some possible worlds, then God exists in all possible worlds.
Premise 4: If God exists in all possible worlds, then God exists in the actual world.
Conclusion: If God exists in the actual world, then God exists.

Now, I am not particularly a fan of ontological arguments because it strikes me as too much like playing with words. However, ontological arguments are a form of argument that bring out truths that can be discerned through the use of reason alone. So, they are worth reviewing as a means of reaching people who can relate to an argument from true reasoning alone and are not limited in their viewpoint to the tiny percentage of evidence found in material objects.

The key to the argument is Premise 1. It notes that it is possible that God exists. Whether it is possible that God exists depends upon what is meant by the word God. Here, the term is very much related to the idea of "necessary" demonstrated above. Zayn Malik may, depending on your taste (or lack thereof), be a great entertainer, but he is certainly not a necessary being to the universe. It may dismay some teeny-boppers, but the universe would be largely unchanged if Zayn Malik never existed. Not so for God as used in this argument. Here, God is defined as a maximally great being, i.e., a being that has all of the qualities that would make him maximally great. One quality that a maximally great being must have to be maximally great is the quality of being necessary. A God who is on the level of Zayn Malik, gifted though he may be, is hardly one who would be considered maximally great. Instead, a God who is as likely to exist as to not exist - a being on the order of Zayn Malik, Invisible Pink Unicorns, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or any other magical creature dreamed up in the clever but infinitely limited minds of those who oppose God - are not maximally great.

God, if he exists as a maximally great being, must be at least as necessary as logic, numbers and geometric shapes. Certainly, the Bible teaches that God is such a maximally great being because it says all of creation is in existence only because of Him. (John 1:1-4) Thus, to truly be maximally great requires that God be necessary. Is it possible that such a God exists? Of course. And if it is possible that such a God exists, he necessarily exists in all possible universes including the one which we inhabit.

Below is a video that examines Plantinga's ontological argument a bit more closely. I recommend watching it and giving it some consideration. If you have trouble with it (as most do), take some time to really consider the discussion. It is a rather interesting look at an argument really worth considering.

     *I

I personally found the video to be helpful to be able to explain the argument. I hope you find it useful and perhaps it may make a difference in your thinking.

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On a message board long ago and far away an atheist called "1337" argues:


I contend that the theistic version of god doesn't exist. Why do I say this? Because the assertion that there is a personal god seems to be baseless. In fact, it is christian apologists that eroded my faith away. They continue to make qualifications about why it seems that god does nothing, until eventually the view that god exists is no different from the view that he doesn't exist.

People assert that god makes a difference in their lives. My question to you is, what would the world look like if that god didn't exist? What differences would we notice?

(NOTE: If anyone responds by saying "without god the world couldn't exist at all" I'll just ignore it, that's not the point of the discussion)

In the discussion that ensued this turned into a reverse design argument. It's reversal because he's saying basically that Christians can show anything that would actually be different if there wasn't a God.

I made two criticisms. They have both gone unanswered.

(1) It's the same mistake the design argument makes, it doesn't have another universe to compare to.

(2) It treats belief in God as though it's just adding a fact to the universe instead of a whole other universe. Belief in God entails a totally different universe than the one atheists believe in.

The Second issue is the one I will focus upon: the "reverse design argument."

The reverse design argument does exactly what the design argument does, which is probably reason enough to disregard it; it reasons form the apparent state of the world to the probable non-existence of God. If it is illogical to reason from the world to God, it is equally illogical to reason from the world to not God. For this reason I swore off design arguments years ago. I have violated that oath twice, but for good reason (I'll get to those in a minute). In any case, there is a great deal wrong with this argument, and in figuring up all the many problems I see it I began to think of two things:

(1) Perhaps it would be instructive to delineate the cases under which one can argue from the state of the world to the existence of God.

(2) In pondering this question, I began to think about perhaps what might be the ultimate God argument.


If you think about it, almost all probabilistic arguments are really arguing from the state of the world to the probable existence of God. But somehow this seem less drastic in some cases than others. I know there are those who just turn off at any kind of God argument. But for us Connoisseurs of God arguments, this should be a thorny issue. After all, what's the real difference between arguing form the contingency of the world, and arguing from the design of the world? Well, off hand the real difference is that one can be compared to something, the other can't. That's one of the major problems with this atheist argument, which was advanced at one point by Richard Carrier. We do not have a designed universe to compare ours to, so we don't know what we are observing, design or random development?

The argument says if we were to consider a random universe that came about by accident, you couldn't do better than our own. It really looks accidental. Life is precarious and rare, the universe is very hostile to it. It's vast, far more vast than it has to be. On the one tiny oasis we know of where life took root it blossomed into something as glorious as Richard Carrier's ego, we have no really obvious clue that God exists. If we were to consider what a purposeful logical creator would do we should expect sign posts to his existence everywhere, right? Well, maybe. maybe not. That's the problem the argument is nothing more than begging the question. It assumes we know what God would do, and after constructing a straw man God who behaves the way we want him to, we just assume we know what he would do and than access the tragic fact that it hasn't been done. So by golly, there must not be a God, because this non God doesn't' follow my advice! Of course the model for his straw God is fundamentalism. Atheists are so afraid to take on liberal theology honestly, but it's because they are all secretly fundamentalists. What I mean by that is they are the "tails" to the fundies "heads." Like communist and anti-communists, they are both parts of the same thing.

The difference in this argument and one that actually has something to compare, a base line from which to work, should be obvious. The atheist who argues for Carrier's idea must forge his own base line by setting up a straw man (um, God) and then privileging his assumptions about the nature of religion in such a way that he just nixes the possibly of any other kind of theology. That's not a real comparison. The fine tuning argument can compare fine tuning to lack thereof, compare target levels to the actual mark that is hit. The contingency arguments (quantum and other forms of cosmology) can compare contingency to necessity. Religious experience arguments are drawn from the results of experience, they compare experience to non experience. The two instances in which I do use design arguments are those in which comparisons can be made between the nature of the world and state of existence known to lack that attribute as known non designed reality; the use of the "God Pod" as evoking innate ideas. We can compare reactions to God talk to other kinds of talk and see that our brains only react to God talk in the way that they do. Thus we can compare the innate ideas of God to reactions to other ideas. The other instance is the fine tuning argument,which has already been explained. But the Carrier reverse design argument has nothing to compare except Ricard's idea of what he thinks God should do. With that as the standard for assumptions, we have no basis upon which to draw conclusions about the nature of God from the state of the universe.

This argument does have one other troubling application. It could be a "possible defeater" for proper basically. To be properly basic an idea must be logically apprehended as it is, with no possible alternative explanations, or "defeaters." The argument is a possible defeater only if we understand it to be indicative of the kind of universe God would not make. But we can't make that assumption because we can't pretend to know all the things God would do. Once can find many alternative theological explanations that involve both Evangelical views of God and non Evangelical views. The most obvious non Evangelical view is that of process theology. The atheist can only think of God as a big man upstairs. This is the basic image they rebel against. The will of the father is their Kryptonite. They foresee a big man on a throne who decides and deliberates such a potentate wants to be served, they reason, and thus must make a universe in which he is known commonly to all. So we should expect the universe to be smaller, easier to navigate, easier to understand, filled with sign posts of God. No disease, no problems and everyone automatically given tons of faith so the world would be a paradise. If some serpent spoiled it, it should be put right immediately so that we can go on in our little heavens, where no doubt we get to listen to Richard Dawkins directing the chores of angels.

The God of process theology, on the other hand, is more like the Hegeian dialectic, or like some organizing principle. This is not a God deliberates and decides. this is a God who is potential in one realm, and who micro manages (literally) creation in the other; almost a law of physics, changing with creation, bringing subatomic particles into being and ushering them out of being. This is more of a stage director in the play of the universe (and in other bipolar structure stage director and producer) than a big king on a throne. Such a God would start the process of life and allow it go where it will, then embrace (to whatever extent possible) any beings that evolve sufficiently to come up to its level.

Another version would be my own idea of God as being itself (Tillich's idea--). This version of God is much like the process God, but I fell that God is too sacred a mystery to pin down to bipolar structures or to analyze all of "his" ("her," "its") doings. God is the great wholly (Holy) other. WE cannot know except through mystical union what God is doing. But such a God is the basis upon which being proceeds into concrescence and the basic reality of the Platonic forms. Such a God does not design or make plans, but the whole of creation is a non deliberating plan in the sense of being an expression of God's charter indwell; yet not necessity the result of raciocentination. Thus God starts a principle of life emerging from the nature of being, because that's what being does it spreads the beings, it "let's be" (John Mcquarrie). The evolutionary course that is followed may be assisted in an automatic sort of way, not as a plan, not as a deliberate gesture, but as the result of a nature that has to manifest itself creatively. This being doesn't' say "I will make men, and men will serve me." But men evolve out of the storm and the wastes of the abyss and they naturally come to find God because that's the nature of being, it is there to be found in the sense of the numinous. When humanity reaches a point where it comprehends the numinous, it seeks God and finds God.

Humanity finds God in a million different places. It finds God in flowers and trees, in brooks (and in books), in grass, in each other. It finds God in storms and scary things, and in the night. It finds God in the sky and the stars in the darkness of a vast and endless expanse. It reaches out for what is there because it has been put into it to do so; not because God sat and said "I will make men and men will seek me" but because God provided for the reality of the Imago Dei to evolve and develop in whatever species reached the point where humanity has come to. God did this automatically as an aspect of self expression, as an outgrowth of consciousness. This kind of God would make a universe of the type we see around us. This type of God would also place in that universe hints so that whatever species reaches that level that God's manifestation would be waiting to show them God's solidarity with them. God would plant a thousand clues, not as a matter of deliberation like one plants Easter eggs, but as the result of being what God is--self communicating and creative. Thus we have design arguments and fine tuning arguments, and contingencies and necessities and the lot. We can find the God Pod in our heads that lights up when it hears God ideas. We can do studies and determine that our religious experiences are better for us than unbelief, because the clues are endless because the universe bears the marks of its creator.

Yet these marks are sublet for a reason. This is where the Evangelical view of God can also be a sophisticated view. The Evangelical God can also be the God of Tillich and the God of process, after all, these are all derived from the same tradition and the Evangelicals have as much right to escape anthropomorphism as anyone. The Evangelical God seeks a moral universe. This God wants believers who have internalized the values of the good. We do not internalize that which we are forced to acknowledge. Thus God knows that a search in the heart is better to internalizing values than is a rational formally logical argument, or a scientific proof. Thus we have a soteriological drama in which we can't tell if there is or is not a God just by looking at the nature of nature. That must remain neutral and must enlighten us because it is not given to us to have direct and absolute knowledge of God. Knowledge of God is a privilege. We must seek it through the heart, that's where it is to be found. It's a privilege but faith is a gift.


Image result for Huckleberry Finn

If one were to review the various lists of the greatest literary classics, it would be hard to call any list complete which didn't include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ("Huck Finn")  by Mark Twain. No less a writer than Ernest Hemingway praised the book stating,

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
Of course, many years have passed since Hemingway made that statement, and while more novels have been written that deserve consideration for that list, I can't think of any that have had the magnitude of impact both in history and literature as Huck Finn . The almost flawless writing of the book using the "voice" of the people - writing in a way that uses the natural accents and verbal styles used in everyday talk in America of the 1800s -- makes the book stand out as unique at the time and a harbinger of novels to come. So, when Huck Finn touches on Christianity and ethics, I think it is worthwhile to consider what Huck Finn says, and (for purposes of this blog) the accuracy of the vision it projects of Christian ethics.

Background to the Struggle

Since most Americans are required to read Huck Finn in high school (or, at least, it was largely considered required reading prior to the present age which has sought to downplay the past greats of American literature in favor of a more diverse ethnicity in literature and prior to the rise of the ongoing effort to remove books from the schools that use language considered incorrect in today's world ), I don't plan to spend much time on the plot of the novel. It is sufficient to note that the book follows the adventures a young boy, Huckleberry Finn ("Huck"), who lives prior to the American Civil War, and who runs away from his abusive father in Illinois. He connects up with Jim, a slave he knows who is owned by his benefactor's sister, Ms. Watson. Together (and with great consternation for Huck), the two try to leave slave country and head to where Jim can be free. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the two find themselves heading down the Mississippi River further and further into the pro-slavery south. For further information and details about the plot, the reader is invited to the summary of Huck Finn on Spark Notes.

One of the most important chapters of Huck Finn is Chapter 31 where Huck gets separated from Jim, and learns that Jim has been sold by two of their traveling companions to some slavers for $40, and these slavers plan to collect the $200 reward. Huck, who is young and poor, has no money to redeem Jim from the slavers, and so he begins to consider the available alternatives. He considers writing to his friend, Tom Sawyer, to have him tell Ms. Watson that Jim was being held by slavers in recognition that Jim's former life with Ms. Watson had been preferable to a life of a slave in the deep south. But Huck initially rejects this course of action out of concern for Jim and how he will be treated by Ms. Watson and others who would identify him as a former runaway. Returning Jim to "his owner" may be better than staying with the slavers, but as a slave who tried to escape it also may be worse for Jim - much worse.

Moreover Huck also worries about his own fate. If he did elect to return Jim, once it became known that he had helped Jim escape it was likely that Huck himself would be marked by his culture as having engaged in shameful conduct. Huck comments (please note, Huck Finn uses language that is not acceptable in today's society and may even shock the conscience of some; it is certainly language that I never use in my own speaking, but in the interest of accurately portraying the novel and Mark Twain's thoughts [as channeled through the fictional Huckleberry Finn], I will not censor the language of the book as originally written):
That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”
Huck's ethical dilemma and the times

Huck's struggle is understandable in light of the times in which he lived. He has been taught that Jim, as a slave, is the property of Ms. Watkins - nothing more. And in the culture where he has been raised, this was not only legal, it was seen as the proper order of things. Having been taught the Biblical injunction against stealing and having been taught in the pro-slavery state where he was raised that slavery was "Christian," it is understandable that his immature understanding of Christianity would lead him to believe that helping Jim escape was the same as stealing. He notes that if he had attended Sunday School, he would have been taught that his act of helping Jim escape would lead him to "the everlasting fire." That's why Huck feels "the plain hand of Providence" (God) slapping him. Huck believes that God has seen what he has done, and is telling him that his actions were wrong.

Huck tries to pray, but realizes that he cannot pray when he is deep in the depths of a sin. So, he sets aside his initial reservations, and decides to lift the burden of sin from his shoulders by writing the letter to Ms. Watkins telling her of Jim's whereabouts. After composing the letter, he feels good because he has done "the right thing," i.e., he was returning Jim to his owner, and therefore had stopped the sin of theft of her property.

Still, as Huck sits and contemplates the fact that he has rid himself of the guilt of having stolen Ms. Watkins' property, he begins to think back on his time with Jim on the raft,
And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.
In these words Twain introduces the readers to Huck's ethical dilemma. He has two competing ethical obligations: an obligation to obey the moral injunction against stealing, and a moral obligation to help a man who has become a friend. He knows that his culture and God's law (as it has been taught to him) requires him to not steal - which he sees himself as clearly doing -- but in his time on the river with Jim he has learned a basic truth: slaves are people, too. Unfortunately, Huck believes what he was almost certainly taught in his Sunday School in the pre-Civil War South (a teaching that was reinforced in law by the horrible Dred Scot v. Sanford decision of the United States Supreme Court), i.e., slaves are property not people. But the time spent with Jim confronted Huck with the simple fact that Jim was much, much more than a horse, a house or a shoe.

Christianity doesn't present the dilemma Huck encounters

The sad part is that the ethical dilemma presented to Huck need not have been as vexing as it was except that the teachings of the church in the Old South made it difficult. You see, by the time Huck Finn was written, most of America's ministers were arguing forcefully from their pulpits that slavery was an affront to God. The earliest pamphlet published against slavery (that I found) was published by Judge Samuel Sewell in 1702 entitled "The Selling of Joseph" and began its arguments by first and foremost citing the Bible:
The Numerousness of Slaves at this day in the Province, and the Uneasiness of them under their Slavery, hath put many upon thinking whether the Foundation of it be firmly and well laid; so as to sustain the Vast Weight that is built upon it. It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life. GOD hath given the Earth [with all its Commodities] unto the Sons of Adam, Psal 115.16. And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on all the face of the Earth; and hath determined the Times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: That they should seek the Lord. Forasmuch then as we are the Offspring of GOD &c. Act 17.26, 27, 29.
Bruce T. Gourley, author of books about religious belief and the Civil War, noted that in the 1820s, "many Baptists North and South were anti-slavery, reflective of larger views in the South at that time, a legacy of a pre-cotton economy." It was the growth of the Cotton Industry in the South and its demand for hours of heavy labor that led many of the Southern pastors to change their opinion and support the "peculiar institution." Still, outside of the South it was rare to find an American pastor who believed slavery was Biblical. But for the hardening of the hearts of those in the South by their economic interests and Southern pride, it is an almost certainty that slavery would have been abolished by the arguments of the abolitionists over time.

As a side note, I recognize that there are people today who wrongly assert that the Bible condones slavery (and I fully expect someone to post a litany of Bible verses that superficially appear to support slavery), but that argument has been roundly rejected by virtually all Christian churches since the Civil War. Nevertheless, the purpose of this particular article is not to make the Biblical case for the anti-slavery position, but accepts that nearly unanimous agreement that the Bible teaches the equality of all men before God, and the understanding that slavery is an abominable practice that the Bible ultimately condemns.

(For those interested in pursuing the argument against slavery, I recommend Ravi Zacharias International Ministries article entitled "Does the Bible Condone Slavery?"  and Richard Deem's "Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible" which both provide a basic background for a Biblical understanding of the rejection of slavery. Another good source of the abolitionist arguments can be found in an online paper entitled "Slavery - The Abolitionist Movement" by David Meager.  I would also recommend reviewing some of the current arguments against Human Trafficking which is, of course, just a modern form of slavery. Two quick resources are GotQuestions.org's paper on Human Trafficking, and All About's article on Human Trafficking Victims) I will not re-fight the Civil War here, and those that do try to do so in the comments will either be ignored or deleted.

A deontological struggle?

Unfortunately, Huck wouldn't have been privy to the arguments rejecting slavery. If he had been, he might have more correctly reasoned that his real dilemma wasn't choosing between two of God's ethical mandate. His ethical dilemma was between choosing to follow an obligation to obey the state and return a person who is a slave according to the earthly authorities of the state or the obligation to obey God's law and help Jim be free. That was the real dilemma facing Huck, and it was a dilemma that thousands of people understood and decided correctly when they formed the underground railroad.

In a choice between following God and following the law of man, the Bible is clear - following God is the moral thing to do. But Huck didn't know that. He had been taught that slaves were property and not people. So, Huck was left with a much more difficult, albeit inaccurate, ethical dilemma - follow God's proscription against stealing and return Jim (thus, denying his humanity) or continue to help Jim escape (recognizing his humanity) and violate the law against stealing.

People encounter this type of dilemma all the time, and those that choose the first believe that God is more interested in rules than he is in souls. In today's language, choice one would be seen as promoting a deontological approach to ethics - the belief that it is our responsibility to do the "right" thing, i.e., follow the rule or prescriptive behavior , regardless of the "good" of the outcome. As noted by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Deontological Ethics:
The most familiar forms of deontology, and also the forms presenting the greatest contrast to consequentialism, hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects—that no matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden. On such familiar deontological accounts of morality, agents cannot make certain wrongful choices even if by doing so the number of those exact kinds of wrongful choices will be minimized (because other agents will be prevented from engaging in similar wrongful choices). For such deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm. Such norms are to be simply obeyed by each moral agent; such norm-keepings are not to be maximized by each agent. In this sense, for such deontologists, the Right is said to have priority over the Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce (including even a Good consisting of acts in accordance with the Right). 
In today's society, one commonly sees deontological thinking in the area of lying. Leviticus 19:11 says quite plainly, "Do not lie," and the New Testament echoes this injunction in Colossians 3:9 when it says, "Do not lie to each other." (Both, NIV) And God Himself is not a liar. (Titus 1:2) And God's ethics certainly call on us to be truthful in all circumstances. But what happens when that injunction against lying might cause injury to another person creating an ethical dilemma? Talk show host Dennis Prager uses the illustration of a person hiding Jews during the Holocaust who is confronted by Nazi soldiers who demand to know if any Jews are in the home and the only acceptable answers are "yes" or "no." The example is intended to set up an dilemma: if the person hiding Jewish people responds "yes" thereby keeping the moral directive to not lie, she does so at the expense of the lives of innocent Jews and therefore follows deontological reasoning. If, however, she says "no," she breaks the moral directive by lying but she saves the lives of the innocent people hiding from persecutors, thus following the teleological or consequentialist approach to ethics. (People sometimes develop fanciful alternatives where one somehow saves the lives without lying, but the point of the dilemma is that there is no other choices - lie and innocent people live, or don't lie and innocent people die.) What is the moral thing to do?

Huck is faced with a similar dilemma, but in his mind he has temporarily elevated the proscription against stealing above the obvious humanity of Jim. Fortunately, Huck is able to pierce the fog of what he has been incorrectly taught to believe, and he finds emerging a simple truth - he cares for Jim, and Jim is more than property. And this simple fact leads him to a final decision:
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
No Huck, you won't go to hell for following God's law even when you don't recognize it as God's law. It's just a shame that the Southern ministers contributed to his belief that helping a man made in the image of God to find freedom is less important to an obligation to return stolen property -- especially where the property isn't really property at all.


It's been three years since I put out m ebook Jesus Was a Mushroom and Other Lies You Won't Believe. To celebrate the anniversary, and the fact that we have a President now who thinks Alex Jones is a great guy, here's a bit of the ebook on the Washington Monument.
***
This one would have to be a second favorite of the conspiracy theorists. It stands right at the axes of the nation’s capital (Michael Bednar, L’Enfan’t’s Legacy), so it serves the very purpose we’ve said an obelisk is supposed to serve. If that’s the case, why read more into it?
The first thing that makes the conspiracy theorists suspicious is that the cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid by Benjamin French, who was a Freemason. Well, it’s true that he was, as confirmed even by the National Park Service.  But so what? That’s only a problem if you assume the Masons are up to no good. But as we’ll see later in this book, there’s no reason to think they are.
Second, it might be pointed out that a lot of Masonic lodges contributed to the building of the Washington Monument, and left memorial stones in it. Well, it’s true that some lodges did this, about 24 of them, but that’s out of a total of 193 memorial stones, which means Masons have contributed only about 12% of the stones. That’s not very impressive for a vast conspiracy, especially when you also had a lot of stones contributed by groups like, "The International Order of Odd Fellows."
The third thing that gets these guys upset are the measurements of the Washington Monument. For them, these numbers add up to bad news:
“At the ground level, each side of the Washington Monument measures 55.5 feet, which is 666 inches.”
The math is right, but the measurement isn’t. It’s actually 55 feet, one and a half inches, which makes it 661 ½ inches. Maybe instead of the Mark of the Beast, it can be the neighbor of the beast!
“The height of the Washington Monument is 555.5 feet which is 6,666 inches.”
Again, the math is right, but the measurement is wrong. Or maybe it isn’t. The thing is that there has been more than one report of the height. According to the National Park Service, the Monument's height has been variably reported between 555.43 feet and 555.75 feet. Maybe the Washington Monument is only the Mark of the Beast on the weekends!
Now, someone might say, “OK, but that’s so close on both counts, someone was obviously up to something.” Really? Like what? Here are a few things to consider.
First, there’s a good deal of the Monument that’s below ground, which makes the actual height of the structure more like 592 feet. Second, we have to ask: What do conspiracy theorists think anyone was trying to accomplish by matching up the height to the number of the beast? Do they think people will want to worship the beast because of it? Is this supposed to be some kind of subliminal advertising for Satan? Do you know anyone who’s converted to Satanism because of these measurements? I sure don’t!
Some of these guys tell us that the numbers convey a message to the initiated about the importance of America in the plan of some New World Order. Well, can I ask a really dumb question? Why would the “initiated” need the Washington Monument to get this information? Can’t they just tell each other verbally, or with secret signs? Or, how about just talking in a corner somewhere? They obviously have to do something like that to tell each other what these numbers mean in the first place. So why bother spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction costs towards engineering a giant obelisk to relate the same message? Or, is this some kind of weird, childish, "ha ha we know something you don’t know" game the “initiated” are playing with the rest of us?
If that’s what it is, I’d say let the conspiracy run its course. The "initiated" are so dumb that they’ll likely all soon die in some sort of freak accident involving a calculator.




Everyone loves Mr. Spock - except those people who mistake him with Dr. Spock, the baby doc, whose advice to mothers in the 50s ruined a generation (but that's another story for another day). No, Mr. Spock is not Dr. Spock. Mr. Spock (or Commander Spock) is that lovable, living, breathing computer-of-a-man who has dedicated his life to logic and facts. For those of us who grew up watching Mr. Spock - which pretty much includes everyone 60 years of age or younger - he represented something to which all could aspire; a person who values logic above emotion. And of course, whenever I do apologetics on the Internet, both sides try to claim the mantle of Mr. Spock. Everyone wants to claim that they are the one being logical while the opponent is being illogical.

Because I already know based upon the comments that twist what I have written in previous posts that someone is going to claim that "BK hates logic" or some other similar nonsense, let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with trying to be logical. It's crucially important that we avoid using logical fallacies when arguing - both formal and informal. In fact, failure to follow the rules of logic will result in nonsensical arguments. Consider, for example, the following syllogism:

Syllogism 1:
Premise 1: All atheists are fools,
Premise 2: Richard Dawkins is an atheist,
Conclusion: Therefore, Richard Dawkins is not a fool.

If Syllogism 1 causes your blood pressure to rise, you are probably an atheist. If it causes you to chuckle, you are probably a theist. But regardless if the syllogism makes you angry or amused, it is not the emotional response that determines if the syllogism is valid. Rather, it is the logical form. Effectively, this syllogism is in the form of:

Syllogism 2:
Premise 1:All X are Y,
Premise 2: Z in an X,
Conclusion: Therefore, Z is not Y.

But wait, that syllogism doesn't make sense, does it? If Z is an X, and all X are Y, then it must be the case that Z is Y. My syllogism concludes that Z is not Y. So, obviously the syllogism fails as written. In other words, it's form is not valid. Instead, it should conclude that Richard Dawkins is a fool.

Syllogism 3:
Premise 1:All atheists are fools,
Premise 2: Richard Dawkins is an atheist,
Conclusion: Therefore, Richard Dawkins is a fool.

That, then, is a valid logical argument.

But wait, one might ask, what about the premises? What if they aren't true? After all, I am certain a large number of readers would disagree that all atheists are fools even if Richard Dawkins is a fool. Well, the truth of the premises goes to the "soundness" of the argument. The soundness of the argument isn't based on it's logical form, but on the truth of its premises. There are always two questions that need to be asked in any argument: (1) is the form logically valid, and (2) are the premises true? If the answer to both is affirmative, then the argument becomes sound.

I feel confident that we can all agree that logic is important in making arguments. If we make an argument using a flawed logical form, i.e., the formal logic is flawed, we ought to be called out and corrected. The problem is when someone makes the "you're argument is illogical" claim, it is very rare that they are pointing out that an argument is not valid, i.e., the formal logic does not lead to the conclusion because it is flawed (like Syllogism 1 and Syllogism 2, above). So, most of the time, when someone tries to bring out their inner-Spock and claim the argument high-ground by claiming that something is illogical, what they almost always really mean is: (1) one or more of the premises are untrue, or (2) the argument uses an informal logical fallacy. I will not deal with the second problem here (I believe posts should be short), but I do want to make one point about the first.

I am certain that there are very few people making arguments about God, Christianity or the Bible who do not believe that their premises are true. (I expect there are "fake arguments" just like there is "fake news", but I think that very few people make an argument knowing or believing that their premises are false. That would be deceitful, and while there are certainly some people who are being deceitful, I choose to give the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.) But often the problem isn't that the premises aren't true. Instead, especially when arguing about the truth of the premises in the field of religion, the biggest problem is often a lack of common language. In other words, we are using different definitions or come from different world-views which those unfamiliar with the language's use in particular cultures mistakenly call "illogical."

As an example, consider Syllogism 3, above. My first premises is pretty controversial: All atheists are fools. Atheists and others may read that premises as meaning that all atheists are unintelligent, half-witted, or lacking in good sense. They justifiably believe that's what the syllogism means because those are all perfectly legitimate definitions or synonyms of "foolish." But that may not be what I meant at all. I may simply using the term consistent with the Biblical statement that "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 14:1) In other words, my definition of a fool may simply be "a person who has said in their heart that there is no God." If that is true, then let's substitute what I may have meant into Syllogism 3:

Syllogism 4:
Premise 1:All atheists are people who have said in their heart that there is no God,
Premise 2:Richard Dawkins is an atheist,
Conclusion:Therefore, Richard Dawkins is a person who has said in his heart that there is no God.

Is Syllogism 4 valid? Yes, the form of the argument has no flaws. Are the premises true? Yes, I would doubt that anyone would argue that the premises of Syllogism 4 are false. Is the argument sound? Yes, the form is valid and the premises are true. Is Syllogism 4 any different than Syllogism 3 when the terms are defined? No, they are the same argument - both are equally sound. Yet, I expect that people will still object to Syllogism 3. But understand that the reason you are objecting is due to the connotation that the word "fool" carries, but it is not because it is illogical. If you object that Syllogism 3 is illogical after having the definition of the term "fool" given, then you are simply allowing emotion to overtake your logic and you would not be living up to the high calling of Mr. Spock to be logical.

The call that someone is not being logical is way overused in Internet debate. I would like to encourage everyone - theists and atheists alike - to try to be more gracious and give people the benefit of the doubt that they are logical, thinking beings.


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Addendum 2/16/2017 - After posting this, it occurred to me how it could be turned into something I did not say. So, let me add an additional thought. This post does not represent a call to come up with independent definitions of words. I could see something like this occurring:

Person 1: "All Christians are jerks" (or something worse).
Person 2: "Well, that's kinda' offensive."
Person 1: "Well, I'm defining 'jerk" (or the even more offensive term) as a really nice person, so you have no right to be offended."

I am not using this to call for this type of banter. What I am doing here is simply suggesting that in reviewing arguments for logic, we stick to logic. And when we review things for logic, we don't call things logical fallacies that are not logical fallacies. Talk that is wrong is wrong regardless of its logical component. It is not an invitation to start re-defining words.

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