The briar patch of theology

The Right ex-Reverend Eric MacDonald is kindly getting me up to speed on Christian theology. He’s recommended to me a series of books that cover the huge diversity of Christian views, although I’m always mindful that those represent the ideas of rarified academics rather than of most religious folks themselves.

My latest read is Introduction to Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives (1998), edited by Roger A. Badham.  I so excited! The chapters include descriptions of “postmodern paleoorthodoxy,” “postliberal theology” (why is everything always “post”?), “correlational theology and the Chicago school,” “process theology and the current church struggle,” “black theology,” “womanist theology,” and “feminist trinitarian epistemology.”  Why do I torture myself so?  Must I read Duns Scotus next?

At any rate, one thing I already know, from a pre-read scan of the book, is that the writing is dreadful. Either theologians don’t care about whether they express themselves clearly, or they obfuscate deliberately to hide the awful fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about.  I’ll render a verdict later.  But here’s a sample from the very first page:

Most denominations are finding themselves to be somewhat latitudinarian reflections of the dynamic currents swirling through both church and culture as we approach the third millennium. New and old lights, as it were, vie side by side in attempts to define future direction.

English translation: Theology has no idea where it’s going.

“Somewhat latitudinarian reflections”? What are they? And is there such a thing as a static current? “As it were”? As what were? This dude badly needs to read Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English language.”

Bad writing aside, I am at a disadvantage reading this stuff, for I keep approaching it like a scientist. Every time someone makes a claim about God, I ask myself, “How do you know that?” Such is the unbridgeable gap between science and faith, for the honest answer to that question is always, “I don’t!”

Here’s an example.  The editor, Roger Badham, admits frankly that Christianity was complicit in the evils of the Holocaust and other persecutions, and then takes up the thorny problem of why a supposedly good God allows evil to exist at all.  Bear with me as I reproduce his theodicy-based solutions:

A central question that haunts both Jewish and Christian post-Holocaust theology is that of theodicy.  Why, if God acts in history, was the Holocaust permitted to happen? A God who has the power to intervene, but who does not, surely stands indictable of injustice.  There are many attempted solutions:  The classical Greek model of God is of a Being beyond time, an unrelated Absolute, immutable and static.  Immutability and omnipotence remain at the heart of Augustine’s doctrine of God, but he stresses that God is in all parts of creation, and is by no means removed from it.  Schubert Ogden claims that God’s “body is the whole universe of nondivine beings”: therefore, all creatures are effected by God and effect God, and experience levels of freedom.  Paul van Buren, adopting this process model, argues for the self-limiting character of God through the creation of self-determining agents, after which even power is social—shared between God and humanity in covenant together.  God’s power is not absolute, but is relational and persuasive, and can therefore be profoundly frustrated.  Because God is relational, God is affected by, and suffers with, creation.  Tillich’s Kierkegaardian approach is compatible: If moral freedom is an inseparable trait of being human, for God to restrain evil would be synonymous with taking away our humanness.  God  has provided us already with every gift possible by which the Holocaust was to be prevented. [JAC: I am not making this up.] Tillich moves away from personalist or supernaturalist assertions about God as a superbeing or agent, and speaks instead of God as the ground of Being and as Being itself.  God is therefore perceived as the ground of agency rather than as an agent, which profoundly changes one’s theological view of God. Put differently, H. Richard Niebuhr insists that “responsibility affirms—God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to [God’s] action.”

Now I’m not going to go through these “solutions” and criticize them. We’ve done that already.  And some of them don’t even make sense, like the “ground of Being.”  I want to make just two points.  First, as the editor notes, there are many attempted solutions.  Indeed: this paragraph has at least five.  So if you’re interested in understanding why there is evil, and you consider these and all the other solutions, which one is the right one? And don’t say that the only thing that matters is that there are solutions, for the different solutions make importantly different claims about the nature of your god.

There is no way of knowing, no way of deciding among them. Such is the briar patch that ensnares you when you do theology.

Second, do any of these people ever consider the alternative and more parsimonious hypothesis: “there is no problem because there is no God”?  If a scientist were writing this, she’d first have to adduce evidence for a divine being, and for its nature, before showing how that being comports with evil.

132 Comments

  1. JBlilie
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    Either theologians don’t care about whether they express themselves clearly, or they obfuscate deliberately to hide the awful fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

    “[N]o one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood; people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.”

    Sir Peter Medawar (The Hope of Progress, 1974)

    • Garnetstar
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      Good quote.

      Here’s another, from Samuel Johnson (he was talking about chemists):

      “(The chemist in question) treated chemistry with an elegance of style not often to be found in chemical writers, who seem generally to have affected not only a barbarous but unintelligible phrase, and to have… wrapped up their secrets in symbols and enigmatical expressions, either because they believed that mankind would reverence most what they least understood, or because they wrote not from benevolence but vanity.”

      I go for the mankind-reverencing-what-they-can’t-understand-theory). Although there is surely a fair portion of vanity as well. This is the mischief that Medawar was talking about.

      • Garnetstar
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

        S. Johnson, “The Life of Boerhave”, Gentlemen’s Magazine, 1739.

  2. JBlilie
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Dr. C.: I have read quite a few apologists (as I’m sure you have). It’s all like this.

    Seriously, how can anyone take this imaginary dreck seriously? (Oh yeah, it makes me feel better, yeah, that’s the ticket! Me, it makes me feel nauseated.)

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      I still wonder – is this a deliberate strategy? If your argument is so obfuscated, you can always accuse your opponent of misunderstanding (either out of malice or because they’re not sophisticated enough). Or did it just evolve that way because it worked? And has it since become the style theologians are accustomed to?

      • AT
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

        no thisis not deliberate

        this is default of our communications

        people very rarely act as scientists in the lab

        even scientists themselves are scientists only in the lab

        when they step out of the lab they are like all of us – they are interested in securing the “good life” for themselves and for their kin

        as such, outside of the lab, scientists will engage in the same ambiguous discourse like everybody else – they will rarely be explicit about their definitions and will constantly assume that they understand what the other is saying

        religion served mankind well as “conjured explanations” at the beginnings, _before_ accumulation of knowledge progressessed far enough to deliver “scientific method”

        this is why religion preceeded science in the course of _evolution of humans and their deliberative capability_

        over the very long horizon into the future (barring some asteroid wiping mankind off the planet) mankind will have no other choice but abandon any and all ‘noumenals’ – the beliefs of any kind religion first, morality (as it understood now) second, and recognize that the sole agency of our species survival is PURE SCIENCE

        PURE SCIENCE will take over “human condition” and will _replace_ “pecking order of animal kingdom” as the basis of human aristocratization

        In other words we will still have a hierarchical structure of the society but the position of each individual will not be determined by what kind of family he was born into but how well his faculties allowed him to understand the accumulated science and be prepared to deal with the challenges of survival on behalf of the whole of humanity and himself. Eventually each person will be born and educated to be capable to manipulate and be manipulated by the whole of human superorganism. Such is the only and inevitable way of our continuos survival on the planet and trues sustainability.

        • Egbert
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

          Sadly, hierarchies contradict what protects science and reason most–equality and liberty. The more hierarchical you get the more hopelessly crippled rationality becomes. That is why real science can never be purely ideal science.

          Religion, as I see it, has played no part in any evolution or advancement in humanity. It is the manifestation of the human strategy of cheating or lying. It actually places humanity into poverty–physically, intellectually and emotionally.

          • AT
            Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

            hierarchies contradict nothing and are as natural as you being able to think about them

            but what you think about them is very far away from phenomenological science or PURE SCIENCE

            religion was _precursor_ to science

            the purely physical “deliberative capability” that made specific strain of hominids what we now call “homo sapiens” is a property of advance life-form and as such a property of matter

            your usage of emotionally charged words like “cheating”, “lying” and “poverty” betrays your “belief in good and bad” and as such renders your opinion non-scientific when science is understood as “belif-free refinement of definitions that is machine-that-goes-by-itself promoting its own integrity and non-ambiguity”

            • satan augustine
              Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

              I’ve no idea what you’re on about. Sounds a bit like theology to me.

              And no, scientists do not speak like theologians when they’re not doing science (which is what you seem to be indicating in your first post). Many, perhaps most people are able to communicate in relatively precise ways – particularly relative to the theological drivel that Jerry quoted in this post. Most people do not talk like that, ever.

  3. moochava
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    What’s funny is that the obvious answers to this simple question are buried in the chunky prose.

    Question: How does an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god allow evil to happen?

    Answer: Either God is not omnipotent, God is not omnibenevolent, or God is not God.

    “God’s power is not absolute, but is relational…”

    In other words, “God is not omnipotent.”

    “The classical Greek model of God is of a Being beyond time, an unrelated Absolute, immutable and static…”

    In other words, “God is not omnibenevolent.”

    “God is therefore perceived as the ground of agency rather than as an agent…”

    In other words, “God is not God.” Or, in regular English, “There is no God.”

    You have to pick one, and all these linguistic jumping-jacks and maybeifthenitcouldbe waffling can’t escape that central problem: there can be no omnipotent, omnibenevolent God with evil in the world. You need to remove one of God’s two traits, or accept that there is no thing in the universe that people would call “God.”

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      Indeed, all “solutions” in the end surrender at least on of the three properties – even if they are trying to hide that they did so. Even the free will defense means that god was not potent enough to create beings with free will but who were not capable of evil.

      I for one will continue to favor the simplest solution: God is a fictional character.

    • Jer
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:14 am | Permalink

      This is exactly true. The only way to answer the problem of theodicy is to remove one of the common traits that Christians believe God has. Either is is not all powerful, not all knowing, or not all loving. Remove one of those attributes and poof – you can explain evil. But it’s an unsatisfactory explanation because remove one of those attributes and poof – you’re no longer talking about God-with-a-capital-G but at best some lesser god.

      Except for Calvinism – where you presume that God is not in fact all-loving but instead is a giant asshole who only loves a small handfull of elect and everyone else he’s going to consign to Eternal Torture. They’ve got a consistent answer to the problem of theodicy. Not an attractive answer, but it is an answer.

      • Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        There is another way to preserve the concept of a tri-omni God – if our earthly life is just a short phase of the eternal existence of an immortal soul. Then, all the horrible things that happen here are, at worst, negligible when put into eternal perspective, and at best, opportunities for personal growth (eg Francis Collins, reflecting on the rape of his daughter, says: “In my case I can see, albeit dimly, that my daughter’s rape was a challenge for for me to try to learn the real meaning of forgiveness in a terribly wrenching circumstance”).

        This answer is slightly more attractive than the Calvinist solution, but crashes heavily against the complete lack of evidence for the possibility of any sort of personal existence independent of our physical brains and bodies.

        • juggler_dave
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

          Did Collins really say this? Really, honest-to-something_or_other say this? His daughter’s rape is all about him, giving him a challenge to learn about forgiveness? What reprehensible mental gymnastics to try to keep his god-belief.

        • Tacroy
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

          But the standpoint that events during our mortal existences are negligible when put into an eternal, immortal context makes no sense when you consider the fact that Jesus himself believed that you could go to hell for eternity for being a bad person, and go to heaven for an eternity for being a good person. Clearly, Jesus believed that events which happen during our mortal existences directly effect what happens after we die.

          This idea preserves the concept of a tri-omni God, but it also ditches everything the Bible says about heaven and hell by assuming that everyone goes to the same place regardless.

          But then, if you want an omnibenevolent God with even a smidgeon of power, you pretty much have to ditch most of the Bible.

          • Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink

            I don’t mean to say that the things that people do during their earthly mortal existence are *morally* negligible – there is still eternal reward for those who choose to be good, and eternal punishment for those who choose evil. The point is that the undeserved pain of bad things happening to good people is negligible in the face of eternal bliss, especially if the end result is that more people turn to Jesus for salvation. (This approach is actually compatible with most of the Bible.)

            • Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

              Infinite punishment for finite crimes is itself enough to lose the omni-benevolent label.

              • Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                Infinite punishment for finite crimes is itself enough to lose the omni-benevolent label.

                With the caveat that I don’t believe any of this myself:

                The easy answer to that is that God’s standards of what is “good” are different (eg “higher” and “more correct” – sorry for all the scare quotes) than those of humans. So if you can’t accept that it is possible for God to be omnibenevolent, even though he condemns people to eternal torment, that’s because you have a faulty definition of the term.

                The slightly more complex answer that is often used by moderate modern Christian theodicists is that people who choose to do bad things during their mortal existence are fully aware that they are effectively choosing be be separated from God for eternity. God, for his part, will give them every opportunity to return to him, but will not force himself upon them, so in the end, God has no choice but to put them aside. (But most of these moderates don’t subscribe to the hellfire-and-brimstone hell – the way it works is that if you are in a proper relationship with God, you get to have eternal life in Heaven with him, but if you reject God, you just die when you die.)

              • Posted June 20, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

                @Theo Bromine:

                The easy answer to that is that God’s standards of what is “good” are different (eg “higher” and “more correct” – sorry for all the scare quotes) than those of humans.

                That answer may be easy, but it doesn’t work. It still means you can no longer call God infinitely “benevolent”, because you have just admitted he is not “benevolent” by any common definition of that word.

                It also opens up a whole other can of words for those who think our sense of good and evil comes from God. How is that possible if his sense of good and evol is so different from ours that we can’t even understand it?

                the way it works is that if you are in a proper relationship with God, you get to have eternal life in Heaven with him, but if you reject God, you just die when you die.

                So no second chances? That’s not maximally benevolent either, is it?

              • Posted June 20, 2011 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

                @Deen
                You are applying rational arguments to matters of faith. The faithful will simply reject logic whenever it is in conflict with their “other ways of knowing”.

              • Posted June 21, 2011 at 5:09 am | Permalink

                The faithful will simply reject logic whenever it is in conflict with their “other ways of knowing”.

                Indeed – only to argue 15 minutes later that logic comes from God, or that the fact that logic works proves that God exists, or something.

        • Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Even if god is only unable to prevent negligible evil, he’s still no longer omnipotent or omnibenevolent.

          And causing harm (or not stopping harm) to one person just to teach another about forgiveness isn’t benevolent at all. If it were, it would be OK if we did it too, wouldn’t it?

    • Sajanas
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      I wonder if this is the reason why, when I ask Christians on forums to explain how they deal with Epicurus’s questions, they always suggest I read someone, rather than giving a straight answer. Because the answers are pretty much to take your pick of god being non-omnipotent, non-good, or non-existent, and you pick whichever answer allows you to continue to be a contributing member of the church.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        …even though the God preached about from the church pulpit bears no resemblance to the philosopher’s god they picked.

        • Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          @truthspeaker

          Indeed, this is the truth. And one that needs to be repeated often. The gods of philosophers (sorry, sophisticated theologians) are clearly not the same as the gods of the religious populace.

          The reason we Gnus criticize the worst, foaming mouthed varieties of religion is because those versions are drastically more common. I wonder if most faithists would even recognize the gods portrayed herein…

          • Posted June 17, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

            …and those varieties are the ones that inform a large chunk of the voting populace. *shudder*

    • AT
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      “there is no God” is only _ first half_ of the solution

      second half of the solution is “there is no good or evil”

      and the logic is the same as the one behind “there is no god”

      when you add both solutions together you will get the point behind

      “why bother with god and “believers”?

      the concept of god is irrelevant and they are irrelevant too in _evolutionary_ terms

      if we spend pour precious time debating irrelevant concepts we divert it from trully relevant question:

      “Why our civilization is unsustainable?”

      “Why any attempts at sustainability within current institutionalization will fail?”

      “What continuous expotential population growth at the expense of irreversible corruption of biosphere tells us about the state of SCIENCE and its position in HUMAN CONDITION?”

      “Whis generation will face “peak everything” and collapse of current socio-economic system (human condition)? Born in 2011? Born in 2050? Born in 2100? How much of biodiversity will be left for them to play with? Will _ANY_ of it be left to them?”

      “WHERE ARE THE SCIENTISTS WHO WANT TO TALK ABOUT THESE QUESTIONS _ON THE SIDE_ OF THEIR “CAREERS”?

      • Phosphorus99
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        “there is no good or evil”

        “there is no good or evil”
        and the logic is the same as the one behind “there is no god”
        when you add both solutions together you will get the point behind

        “why bother with god and “believers”?

        Why bother with good and evil ?

      • Dominic
        Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink

        True [sadly].

        • Phosphorus99
          Posted June 18, 2011 at 4:50 am | Permalink

          How do we know what is good and what is evil ?

          • Rilke's Granddaughter
            Posted June 18, 2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

            Societal consensus. The same way Christians do.

            • Phosphorus99
              Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

              Societal consensus in some Muslim societies is that women may be subject to honor killings for engaging in pre-marital sex – is this good ?

              • truthspeaker
                Posted June 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                My opinion is no. I imagine that’s also the opinion of the women being killed.

  4. Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    So if you’re interested in understanding why there is evil, and you consider these and all the other solutions, which one is the right one?

    But that’s not a question that theology seems to be concerned with, is it? It only needs to reassure the believers that there are answers. It doesn’t matter whether the answers are any good, or even whether they contradict other cherished beliefs. As long as the believers can be assured that the expert theologians have answers – any answers – maybe they’ll stop asking questions.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      I can almost sympathize. I’ve been known to agree to some things just to shut up the bore.

  5. Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    I recently skimmed through some theological papers written by a friend during her M.Div. work. The general scheme, similar to the quote above, seems to be: “A said this about God; B said that; this relates to my life in such-and-such a way”. Very little of it seems to rise to the level of what, in high school I was taught, constitutes an *essay*, ie. an argument that attempts (“essaier”) to establish a thesis by argument. If it purports to be about truth at all, it’s a subjective, almost narcissistic concept of truth.

    But then, all my tertiary education is in Engineering — is this perhaps typical of university-level Humanities student papers? Or is it only theology and post-modern studies that suffer from this seeming vacuity?

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      As my girlfriend is a humanities student, I would say this is not typical of all humanities student papers.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Ditto. When writing about literature, relating the literature to the essay writer’s life is a big no-no. You are definitely expected to put forward a thesis and support it.

    • JBlilie
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:47 am | Permalink

      I am an engineer (yikes!) but I also took many “liberal arts” courses at university. I loved them (and scored very well — I think I really surprised the professors).

      The professors would have flunked anyone producing rubbish like that quoted by Dr. C. They expected crisp, factual, well-written essays on the subject at hand.

    • H.H.
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Theological arguments are almost always arguments to authority. Indeed, I’d say the closest parallel is law, where legal arguments are made on the basis of standing precedents. And just as loopholes can be found in poorly written laws, so theologians look for loopholes in the pronouncements and prophecies of previously accepted authorities.

  6. Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I have almost finished all of Bart Ehrman’s books for the lay person; really well written, very interesting and I would say extremely worthwhile. Once you take out the theology and look at the history and the “science” (many parts of his books read like something out of CSI) of how the bible evolved you get a whole new perspective of how christianity itself has evolved over the last 2000 years. Especially recommend “Lost Christianities” which demonstrates that there was far more diversity in Christian beliefs in the few hundred years after Jesus’ death and shows how, indeed, history really has been written by “the winner”

  7. Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Clearly, the only way to deal with the historicity and reification of the rubric (versus the praxis of intersectionality) is to take an orthogonal, poststructuralist approach.

    • JBlilie
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      Clearly! hahahahahaha!

    • Andrew B.
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      So obvious I’m bemused you felt the need to mention it! Ho ho ho!

      • Jeff Engel
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        Does the orthogonal, poststructuralist approach involve writing vicious marginalia? Or whacking things with big sticks? I’m hoping.

        • madamX
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          It definitly involves some kind of whacking…

        • Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          That depends on whether or not you’re looking at the postructuralist approach at the right angle, which, of course, is quite normal.

          /@

          • Diane G.
            Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

            LOL! Best. Subthread. Ever. Thanks all of you!

  8. Sven DiMilo
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Man, I hate latidudinarians.
    And the damn longitudinarians are almost as bad!

    • Grendels Dad
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Which ones open their hardboiled eggs at the small end? I can never keep this sophisticated theology straight.

  9. Sigmund
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    “So if you’re interested in understanding why there is evil, and you consider these and all the other solutions, which one is the right one?”
    Catholic theology is based on the notion that there is only one correct interpretation of scriptures – that of whoever is the current pope. God is supposed to communicate with the pope and inspire him to decide the correct option from the many possibilities on offer.
    Catholic theologians laugh at protestant factions fighting over their own interpretations of the bible since (obviously!) none of them have the direct line to God that the pope apparently possesses.
    All you need to do is
    A. Believe there is a God
    and
    B. Believe that He is communicating the truth to the pope
    and everything makes sense! (well, not really, but it seems to do for those who believe A and B.)

    • Tacroy
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Hah, yeah right.

      The only Catholics who really believe that are the ones under tight control of the Vatican, which ends up being the ones in Vatican City and the poorer areas.

      Liberal Catholics, the ones who have money, are basically Protestant in their interpretation of the Bible. For instance, the Catholic Church’s official position is that you are not allowed to use condoms ever unless you are a gay male prostitute with HIV; however, my wife went to a private Catholic girl’s school in an affluent area, and there they were taught that you are allowed to use condoms if you can come to terms with God about it. Which boils down to “if you want to”, since God has a well-known habit of agreeing with whoever is currently believing in him.

      So yeah, not even all Catholics believe the same shit.

    • PeteJohn
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      So in other words the only interpretation is what some old guy in Rome says God told him. That clears it all up! Thinking people actually buy this stuff. Incredible.

  10. sprinklingsofalice
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Either theologians don’t care about whether they express themselves clearly, or they obfuscate deliberately to hide the awful fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

    That would explain why so many Economics texts are so hard to digest…

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      As an economist, I am going to pretend to be very offended by this remark.

  11. Brian
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    No one should read ““Politics and the English language” with the aim of following its advice:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=992

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but I found Orwell’s advice useful

      • moochava
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink

        I dunno, man, do you really want to argue with someone who says “milquetoast simulacra”? That pretty much automatically means they’re smarter than you.

        (I checked the Monster Manual 3, and apparently the “milquetoast simulacra” is an 11-hit-dice golem with psionic resistance.)

        • Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

          That would be the “milquetoast simulacrum”. 😉

          /@

      • AT
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

        i have checked orwell’s essay and brian’s criticism

        whatever brian’s motivation in the attempt to “criticize” orwell’s piece it seems to me brian missed to detect a vantage point from which orwell is writing

        orwell has excelled (if only informally) in understanding and interpreting “human condition” http://www.condition.org/humcon.htm _by and through_ the tools of language

        as such his piece is both more about language being a reflection and the tool that shapes human condition

        it is not about semantics or concrete rules of “good writing”

        any attempt at “literal interpretation” will fail

  12. Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    Oddly, he seems at least marginally illiterate. He doesn’t apparently understand the difference between “effect” and “affect. Just to be schoolmarmish.

    • Dan
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      I saw that, and decided that it’s better and more revealing as “effect.”

      “therefore, all creatures are effected by God and effect God,”

      God created all creatures, and all creatures create God. This is exactly the sort of sentiment I expect from this sort of “sophisticated” theology.

      • Scott de B.
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what he intended to say.

  13. Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Resisting the urge to tackle each one… this is why I’ve abandoned the Logical Problem of Evil in favor of the Evidential Problem of Evil. The former may be assailable by some of these, uh, “nuanced” arguments — it’s difficult to say for sure. But all of them can be handily defeated by simply saying, “Are you fucking serious? That is your excuse for little children being drowned to death in a meaningless tsunami?” Except of course for the various “ground of being”, etc., arguments, but of course once you’ve gone there, you might as well be an atheist…

    • JBlilie
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      “Except of course for the various “ground of being”, etc., arguments, but of course once you’ve gone there, you might as well be an atheist…”

      Exactly. They are already there and don’t know it.

  14. Tulse
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Why, if God acts in history, was the Holocaust permitted to happen? A God who has the power to intervene, but who does not, surely stands indictable of injustice.

    He asks this of a god who alleged wiped out all of humanity except for one family, and routinely commanded his “chosen people” to commit genocide.

    Really, what did he expect?

    And isn’t it interesting that it is only the relatively recent Holocaust, by those nasty Nazis, that is troubling, and not, say, the various Crusades, the Inquisition, and other acts of barbarity that were committed directly in the name of Christianity.

    • early_cuyler
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Or the American import — Manifest Destiny. Now there’s something Xtians can be proud of.

    • Phosphorus99
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Should punishment ever be administered ?

      Could a nation ever be appropriately punished?

  15. yesmyliege
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    “…somewhat latitudinarian reflections of the dynamic currents swirling through both church and culture…”

    My… God.

    The sacrifices you make for our educational salvation, Jerry! That you willingly undergo such mental scourging is an act of such open-armed martyrdom as to render me transcendentally numinous. Bless you, bless you, bless you.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      It’s…it’s almost…spiritually inspiring!

      • Posted June 18, 2011 at 12:29 am | Permalink

        It’s…it’s almost…gnuminously inspiring

        fify

        /@

  16. Garnetstar
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Duns Scotus is a hell of a lot easier to understand than modern theologians are!

    He makes better arguments, too. No matter how easily refuted, they are intelligible.

  17. Egbert
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    There is a thread over at richarddawkins.net started by Dawkins himself, bemoaning the absurdity of postmodernism.

    See here:
    http://richarddawkins.net/discussions/637927-update-fashionable-nonsense

    It is interesting how postmodernism and the continental philosophy tradition (with exceptions) shares the same baffling nonsensical and incoherent language as theology. In fact, the two are both emperors in new clothes.

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Well, with secularism rampant in Europe, postmodernism was bound to emerge among those scholars with a natural bent for theological argumentation but no belief in God.

      /@

  18. Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    “Such is the brian patch that ensnares you when you do theology.”

    I’m brian patch and so is my wife! Thanks for reading through all that waffle so us lazy types don’t have to. I had quite enough of their obfuscation when I was studying philosophy of religion, can’t bear to go back to it.

  19. MadScientist
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    The real problem faced by theologians is how to convince people that there is a loving all-powerful all-knowing god despite the evidence to the contrary (the existence of evil). The “solutions” (I prefer the honest word ‘excuses’) are invariably some circuitous jabber which seeks to confound rather than to honestly explain anything. It is a futile and desperate exercise in stoking one’s (and others’) biases to revive a fading but comforting belief in the non-existent. The phenomenon is nothing new – the problem existed and was pretty obvious from the earliest days of the Jesus cults.

    • Sajanas
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      I think for the most part they’ve been coasting by giving excuses and multiple choice fake answers to people that want to believe in God, rather than convincing those who are looking for proof. Its a job that puts a high value on *seeming* smart, which is why there are so many big words for such small ideas.

      • Tacroy
        Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:29 am | Permalink

        Hahaha for some reason your post just gave me the image of the Bible, re-written as a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

        “You see a burning bush ahead of you. Do you:
        “Go investigate – turn to page 259
        “Wait for the mushrooms to wear off – turn to page 300
        “Deconstruct the event as a narrative interpreting God as the ground of being – turn to book 3, page 1310”

        • truthspeaker
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

          +1

        • Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          The intercolumn references in _The Boomer Bible_ almost make it one of those …

        • Diane G.
          Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

          That’s funny!

  20. Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that, if you’ve got a generous amount of Ground of All Being, the obvious thing to do is have a cook-out!

    What’s your favorite bun for a godburger? Would you like some bacon and cheese? Guacamole?

    And how ’bout the godloaf — serve with ketchup or not?

    I don’t recommend god tartare, though…you never know what kinds of parasites you’ll catch that way.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

      Seems I forgot to subscribe….

      b&

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      What’s your favorite bun for a godburger? Would you like some bacon and cheese? Guacamole?

      Holy Guacamole, of course.

  21. Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    do any of these people ever consider the alternative and more parsimonious hypothesis: “there is no problem because there is no God”?

    That’s what happened to me after being exposed to this sort of theodical bafflegab in college. The desperate thrashing of these authors was eye opening. It looked to me like they’d been given a puzzle and were doing their damndest to put the pieces together to get the picture they wanted, even if it meant flipping the puzzle over and waving to the blank gray slate as their solution.

  22. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    In my days as a student and a college professor, this junk was fondly known as “shoveling”.

  23. Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    I just wanted to say that I am very interested in what you come up with, and I think it’s a great idea for someone with empirical training and pedigree like yourself to take on this “bafflegab” (great word!!). I’ve been thinking about looking into this stuff myself, and, like I say, I look forward to your reflections.

    I have always been more or less satisfied with the courtier’s reply, but many outside the gnu community are not, and it seems like a reasonable project to address their concerns.

  24. Finbarr
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    JAC: ‘Either theologians don’t care about whether they express themselves clearly, or they obfuscate deliberately to hide the awful fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about’.

    Having done theology at university (now an atheist because of that) I can confirm that it is deliberate, wilful, obscurantism designed to impress the reader with lots of long words and flowery prose. It works, too, as long as you don’t look too hard at it. I used to write my essays that way, especially the ones I didn’t understand, and I usually got a first for them, which just goes to show anyone can make sh*t up and dress it up in theological newspeak.

    Once you ask ‘what does [long word] actually mean?’ or ‘how do you know [assertion about God]?’ it all falls apart. Pay no attention to the priest behind the curtain…

  25. Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    There you go, Jerry. I told you so. All you have to do is read some theology and you’ll find out a number of things. First, as you’ve noticed, many theologians do not write well. Second, they disagree, but there are no clear grounds for disagreement. Third, many theologians will present different solutions to the same problem in the same (paper, I was going to say) paragraph, and there will be no clear indication that the difference is even noted, and second, it is simply assumed that the problems created by diversity of “testimony” can be dealt with. But no one bothers to ask the epistemological question: how do we know what we’re talking about? But you have to have the experience of going through the briar patch if you are going to face theologians on their own turf. It’s easy to say, as Grayling does (justly, of course), that if you dismiss talk of god, you don’t have to pay attention to the argument. The advantage of paying attention to the argument, as the accommodationists don’t seem to notice, is that, when you do, it is quite obvious that that basic epistemological question has not been so much as asked, let alone explored. By the time you’ve finished the Badham collection of papers, you’ll be well primed; you won’t need to refer to Duns Scotus. But that, of course, was just Terry Eagleton showing off.

    • Linda Grilli Calhoun
      Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      What on earth does “the experience of going through the briar patch” mean? L

  26. Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I am confused by this thread and its topic, theology.

    False premise.
    Next.

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      @Martin

      Nicely put. I often use this as a textbook example of begging the question.

      “Why do gods allow bad things to happen?”

      Sorry, begs the question: you have assumed there are gods?

  27. Levon
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    “God has provided us already with every gift possible by which the Holocaust was to be prevented.”

    And here I thought Boeing made B-17s.

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      Ah, but you don’t need to know anything about Boeing to understand B-17s!

      Oh, sorry: Wrong thread.

      /@

      PS. Yes, Phospho. I am mocking you.

      • Phosphorus99
        Posted June 18, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        Duly noted

  28. dorothy wilson
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    If you want to read from writers about the new changes in theology I would direct you to such writers as Spong, Dominic crossan and Marcus borg. I was in the church when I was young and threw it in because , even though I have had no great schooling I could see that none of it made sense. that the bible was written by simply, men and their ideas where simply belonging to the times they lived in. and have found that people like Spong who is a bishop of the Anglian church, is turning the church upside down.

  29. PeteJohn
    Posted June 17, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    If the Shoah does not prove God to be completely made up then it’s clear theists will make up any excuse to keep on believing in nonsense. The Old Testament is full of examples of God personally raining hell upon the enemies of Jews, and then in the 20th century Nazi Germany and European collaborators begin an attempt to wipe the Jewish people off of the face of the Earth. They failed but took 6 million Jews with them. An honest, thinking person would conclude that God is a jerk, is weak, or isn’t there. These fools take door number four, which isn’t a valid choice.

    Also, could someone unravel the argument forwarded by this Niebuhr fellow? “Responsibility affirms—God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to [God’s] action.” Sounds like word salad to me. Regardless, this paragraph provides no answers. It’s providing the ABCDE of a multiple choice test without an answer key. I guess that’s the whole point of theology… cooking up excuses.

    • dorothy wilson
      Posted June 19, 2011 at 4:26 am | Permalink

      not all christians agree with each other, and not all scientist agree with each other, and not all atheist agree with each other on things. the important thing in this world is treating everyone as we would like to be treated and looking after the ones who can’t look after themselves. whether there is a higher source or if there isn’t, believing one way or another isn’t going to change one iota what is.

      • Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

        Ah, the Golden Rule.

        Sadly, believing one way or another does change, and by much, much more than one iota, how some people do actually treat others. And very often it’s not how they themselves would like to be treated. Do you really think that those who use the Bible or Qur’ān to justify restricting the rights of others would really like to have their own rights restricted on the basis of some other collection of ancient and arcane lore?

        /@

  30. Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Theology is overdue for a “Sokal Affair” experiment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

  31. Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Aww, when I read “The briar patch of theology” I thought you were going to be like Br’er Rabbit:

    “‘Skin me, Brer Eric,’ sez Brer Jerry, sezee, ‘snatch out my eyeballs, t’ar
    out my yeras by de roots, en cut off my legs,’ sezee, ‘but do please, Brer
    Eric, don’t fling me dat theology book,’ sezee.

    “Bred en bawn readin’ a theology book, Brer Fox–bred en bawn readin’ a theology book!’
    en wid dat he skip out des ez lively as a cricket in de embers.”

    I had some trouble finding this in the original. It’s not as I remember it from the Disney version.

  32. Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    edit: “…readin’ a theology book, Brer Eric-“

  33. Posted June 17, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Introduction to Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives

    Is God different in South America or South East Asia? But the same in the USA, Canada and Mexico? Or is it just a trick of perspective? –

    – To his moll said the lynx*-eyed detective:
    “Can it be that my eyesight’s detective?
    Has your east tit the least bit
    the best of your west tit
    or is it a trick of perspective?”

    *Ob-kitteh!

  34. Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    I am at a disadvantage reading this stuff, for I keep approaching it like a scientist.

    No wonder you are having a hard time. Do you approach reading novels like a scientist? Or cookbooks? Or poetry?

    Most theology probably is pretty bad. But there’s no way you can possibly understand it without approaching it on its own terms. Whatever it is, it isn’t merely a bad version of science, so reading it that way is bound to fail.

    • Posted June 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but theology does make empirical claims: God is this way, or that way, etc. Or that his son Jesus died on the cross, but came back to life again.

      It’s hard to avoid asking where the beef is. Or are we supposed to avoid asking those annoying questions when someone says that god allows tsunamis to kill thousands of people because he gave the universe freedom? Are we supposed to respond, “Oh, I see . . .”

      And yes, if novels or poetry made claims about how the world is, then I would ask the authors, “How do you know that?”

      Sadly, I can’t see that theology is a good version of anything—not even fiction!

      Finally, yes, I do think I understand it. It’s an attempt to document, understand, and rationalize the nonexistent. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out what’s going on.

      • dorothy wilson
        Posted June 18, 2011 at 1:26 am | Permalink

        there are a lot now in progressive churches that say that Jesus was not god and that the virgin birth is wrong and that Jesus was simply a man of his times but in another way was before his time because he simply taught that unlike the Roman empire that taught justice by victory Jesus was spreading the message victory by justice and love was the key but the goverment turned him nto a religion. now there is a movement in some churches to bring back the origonal message, and get rid of all the bad theology. jesus wasn’t put on the cross for our sins he was put there because he went against the Roman theology

        • M'thew
          Posted June 18, 2011 at 4:30 am | Permalink

          Periods are your friends. No, really.

          Please. Learn. How. To. Use. Them.

          • dorothy wilson
            Posted June 19, 2011 at 4:14 am | Permalink

            M’thew are you trying to be a smart arse? saying about how to use periods? we have not all had an education. and any way all this going back and forth about what is and what isn’t, in the end all these great experts on both sides may end up knowing nothing about life and death.

            • Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

              Capital letters are your friends too!

              Correct use of capitalisation and punctuation has two benefits:
              1. It improves the legibility and sense of what you write.
              2. It means that others are more likely to pay proper attention to your comments and (the corollary) less likely to dismiss you as a troll.

              Cheers!

              /@

            • Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:45 am | Permalink

              Oh, and this:

              we have not all had an education

              Should we infer then that you lack the education to understand proper grammar? Yet you seem to think you have had sufficient education to weigh in on a discussion of sophisticated theology. Forgives if we find that, um, inconsistent.

              Cheers!

              /@

            • truthspeaker
              Posted June 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

              “we have not all had an education”

              You didn’t make it to 6th grade? In that case your beef is with your parents.

              I have a friend who dropped out of high school but got his GED when he was over 30. It was a lot of work but he said it was worth it.

        • Notagod
          Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink

          Each christian is a god unto themselves. You want a god with jesus and virgins – there is a christian god for that. You want a god without jesus and virgins – there is a christian god for that. You want a god that bombs Iraq – there is a christian god for that. You want a christian god that kills people that don’t agree with you – there is a christian god for that. You want a christian god that hates gays – there is a christian god for that. You want a christian god that loves gays – there is a christian god for that. You want ????? – there is a christian god for that.

        • Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          That’s nice and all, but it has no bearing on reality whatsoever. (Of course, that’s never been a requirement for religion.)

          First, if there’s one thing ancient Christians — and we’re talking late first century and early second century here — could agree upon, it’s that there’s no way, shape, or form that Jesus could possibly have been mistraken for a regular old ordinary guy. For half of them, even suggesting that he sullied himself by physically entering the mortal realm was the utmost blasphemy. For the other half, he was indistinguishable from a Greco-Roman god with all of the accompanying spectacular fireworks that entails.

          Second, Jesus-as-pure-sweetness-and-light is a much more recent fiction entirely absent from the Gospels. Never mind the commandment to make human sacrifices of all non-Christians; never mind his boasts that he came to bring war, not peace; never mind his preaching that families must violently rip themselves apart to achieve salvation; never mind the scene at the moneychangers or the rest of the rampant unadulterated anti-Semitism. Even in the Bloody Sermon on the Bloody Mount, Jesus was a grade-A asshole: he confirms that he will personally oversee the eternal torture of all women who successfully escape abusive marriages.

          Jesus may well love you, but only in the sense that Torquemada loved the smell of fresh feces and urine mixed with blood in the morning, accompanied by the screams of those from whom such substances were being wrenched.

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Posted June 18, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          jesus wasn’t put on the cross for our sins he was put there because he went against the Roman theology

          But, Dorothy, I just don’t think that’s so: Roman theology tended to be very flexible in accommodating others’. Jesus (if he existed) was put there for political reasons (some to do with his going against the theology of Hebrew collaborationist).

          /@

        • truthspeaker
          Posted June 20, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          “now there is a movement in some churches to bring back the origonal message,”

          Jesus’s original message was that people who didn’t worship him as the son of God would be cast into a lake of fire.

      • Posted June 18, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        God is beyond all dualities, especially that of existence/nonexistence. God is beyond understanding and theology is an attempt to understand it, thus almost always guaranteed to fail, but occasionally failing in insightful ways.

        You may substitute “God” for God above, eg, let’s say I’m taling about the *concept* of God, which even atheists appear to have access to. It doesn’t seem to matter whether G exists or not or what you believe; the mere fact that Christians and atheists appear to think they know what each other is talking about is enough to give the idea of God a certain reality.

        • Notagod
          Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

          People think there are martian space ships, christians can talk about people thinking there are martian space ships, christian space ship gods a certain reality.

        • Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          God is beyond all dualities, especially that of existence/nonexistence.

          It’s also beyond coherence/incoherence.

          the mere fact that Christians and atheists appear to think they know what each other is talking about is enough to give the idea of God a certain reality.

          Does that mean there is a certain reality to Santa Claus? Or Superman?

          • Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

            Does that mean there is a certain reality to Santa Claus? Or Superman?

            Yes. After all, everyone knows who they are, what characteristics they have, and they appear to have causal powers in the world, eg, people dress up as Santa Claus and Superman, their stories get continually re-enacted, they are used as exemplars of generosity or power…in fact, Santa Claus is probably more real than you.

            More along these lines here.

            • Notagod
              Posted June 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

              So if I dress up as an anti-gravity rendition of mtraven, mtraven will disappear?

            • Posted June 20, 2011 at 6:53 am | Permalink

              they appear to have causal powers in the world

              No, they don’t. All the work is done by the storytellers, not by the characters themselves.

      • Posted June 19, 2011 at 5:33 am | Permalink

        theology does make empirical claims

        Indeed it does: http://www.calamitiesofnature.com/archive/?c=547

        /@

  35. sailor1031
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    omnipotent, omniscient, omnibeneficent? These are all attributes that humans think a god ought to have. It doesn’t mean that if there is a god it thinks the same way. The only attribute we can reasonably ascribe to any god not of our own making is an extreme indifference to the point that that god is undetectable.

    OTOH maybe people who want to believe in a god would be better to just accept that stuff happens

  36. Gayle Stone
    Posted June 18, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Since these people cannot start giving us proof of THEIR god, I suggest they start with “What If?” What if there is no god, what if the Bible, Koran and the Book of Maroni are ficticious? Then turn around and falsify them all.

  37. Posted June 19, 2011 at 2:24 am | Permalink

    My advice, Jerry, is to stop reading those books now! I know you’re just trying to give theology a fair hearing, but it is a guaranteed dead end. I speak as someone who invested the first quarter century of his life steeped in similar BS. If I could go back I might pursue a career in science, like you have. But life moves on and, well, that option is now a remote possiblity for me.

    Anyway, the point is, please don’t waste your time trying to understand the incomprehensible when there are so many other worthwhile activities for someone with your intellectual abilities.

    Arm us with evidence! Let the rest of us deal with the fundies. Cheers.


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