The reincarnation of a WW2 pilot?

Summary

The case of the alleged reincarnation of James Houston Junior, an American pilot being shot down in Japan during WWII, is often seen as the strongest evidence for reincarnation. In this long article, I investigated this claim. While many putative pieces of evidence can have come about through foreknowledge or leading questions, there are a number of inconvenient facts that remain. Whilst they aren’t sufficient for proving reincarnation, they certainly make this case anomalous.

Introduction

 

If any alleged case of reincarnation proved to be genuine, both Christianity and Naturalism might be gravely undermined.

In what follows, I sought to investigate one famous such incident with the mind of an open sceptic, i.e. someone who carefully investigates the evidence without having a prior belief in the plausibility or implausibility of the phenomenon.

 

A good summary of the peculiar story involving James Leininger and his parents Bruce and Andrea can be found here.

This is an interview of the parents.

I base my analysis of the facts on the book “Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot” written by Bruce and Andrea Leininger, while, of course, considering the possibility they might misremember some things or get certain facts wrong.

I’ll start by quoting the “explanation” of two naturalistic philosophers John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin in their book “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Our Visions of the Afterlife

Unlike Internet Sceptics, they are moderate and respectful and their text is a pleasant read.

,

They start by summarising the case:

 

“At the age of two, James Leininger began having frightening dreams that caused him to yell out and to kick, and claw in his sleep.
He’d dream that he crashed in an air-plane and was trying to escape. The details James shared about these dreams were astonishing. He demonstrated encyclopaedic knowledge about World War II aircraft, and he recounted facts about a particular aircraft carrier, the Natoma Bay, and its flight crew, including naming a fellow pilot, Jack Larsen.
Jame’s fascination with these aircraft and events in the war was not confined to his dreams. He drew pictures, acted out scenes, and talked frankly and in great detail about the battle of Iwo Jima. He signed his pictures “James 3” because he was, in his words, “the third James.”
As Jame’s parents began looking more deeply into their son’s behaviour and interest in the war, they noticed some astonishing coincidences. The details young James was relating matched historical facts. The Natoma Bay was an actual ship that fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. The names of people James talked about in his dreams were members of the flight crew on that ship. One of the pilot shot down had been named James. They began to suspect that their son might be the reincarnation of that pilot. With the help of Carol Bowman, a therapist known for her work on cases of reincarnation in young children, the Leiningers began to listen empathetically to their son. What they saw and heard in his words and behaviour only further supported their suspicion. They became convinced, even if reluctantly in the case of Jame’s father, that their son had lived a past life as James Huston, who was shot down in his plane over the Pacific during the battle of Iwo Jima.
This brief synopsis should be enough to give you a sense of why many have thought that the best explanation of Jame Leninger’s dreams and behaviour is that his is a case of reincarnation. This was a very young child demonstrating a fascination with certain kinds of aircraft and an apparent knowledge of particular historical people and events in ways that suggested that he was personally and deeply attached to them. It will come as no surprise, we’re sure, to learn that we are not convinced by the reincarnation hypothesis. It may be one possible explanation of things, but it is not an especially compelling explanation. This becomes clear once we take account of the full range of factors, including both details of James Leininger’s life and the overall explanatory context.

First of all, a young boy’s fascination with airplanes, even airplanes of a very particular make and model, should strike no one as remarkable in the least.
In general, and as every parent knows, young children become obsessed with people, places, and things. Often, these obsessions are often explained by exposure to the person or things…But sometimes, these obsessions should seem to come out of the blue. It would be rash, however, to claim that just because one cannot understand how a child came to be fixated on something, the explanation must be supernatural. It is better to think, instead, that one has simply missed or forgotten something relevant to explaining how the obsession began.
Jame Leininger’s obsession with WWII airplanes may strike one as an outlier, perhaps, because it is coupled with extensive knowledge of facts about both the aircraft and historical people and events. But before we jump to the conclusion that the best way to explain what is going on here is to appeal to reincarnation, we should consider whether there are any promising avenues for explaining things by more conventional means. And there does seem to be some possibilities here.

Consider the fact that the Leiningers visited a flight museum when James was eighteen months old. During their visit, James walked around the very type of planes he later claimed to have been flying in his dreams, Corsairs. His parents have even claimed that he looked like he was conducting a flight check. Noting this detail about Jame’s life seems like a promising start for provinding an explanation of his obsession with ww2 aircraft, and his fixation on Corsairs in particular. By all accounts, James was a very bright child. It is possible that a bright 18-month-old could absorb many details at the air museum, especially in conjunction with listening to his parents or tour guides or others discussing the displays. James may not have had the ability at 18 months to put these experiences into words and express them verbally, but many of the details might have registered. Later, when he developed the capacity to verbalise, James would have been able to express the information that had registered earlier. We can thus begin to make sense of why James Leininger was so obsessed with World War II aircraft and how he knew what seemed like an uncanny amount about them. And we can do so without appealing to anything supernatural.

Even if James Leininger’s detailed knowledge of WW2 aircraft were to be explained in this way, it may still seem as though the case presents a serious puzzle. How could James have known the names of the people he recounted as being there with in his dreams?

We are not at all sure how the explanation of these facts is supposed to go.
But it does seem possible to explain them without invoking reincarnation. Perhaps James heard these names somewhere. Maybe they were mentioned in a television program he saw (the Leiningers admit to conversing with James about a television program on World War II aircraft on the History Channel) or a book or museum panel someone (perhaps his parents) read to him. Perhaps his parents mentioned them in conversations at home. Children are incredibly perceptive, and their memories often outstrip those of adults. Given that he was obsessed with WWII aircraft, it’d be no surprise if James soaked up titbits of information that went in one ear and out the other for those less intent on the subject.

Once his parents and other adults began to ask him about these things, it would not be surprising if Jame’s interest in them increased. He may even have begun to seek out more information about these matters out of a desire to please his parents or other authority figures, such as Carol Bowman and Jim Tucker (another expert on reincarnation), who interviewed him in relation to the possibility that he was reincarnated.
The presence and interests of these people would be powerful influences on a young person at an age when the desire to please an adult authority figure is great. So there might have been a symbiosis between young Jame’s desire to please and his parents’ and certain researchers’ beliefs and prior assumptions about what was happening in his case. This could have led to Jame’s telling a story that suggested he was reincarnated, when in fact he was not.
Indeed, it would not be surprising if James Leininger came to “remember” events from a past life due to repeated, and possibly leading, questioning from his parents and other adults. It is a commonplace that the testimony of children is quite suggestible, and three- and four-year-olds have been shown to be more suggestible than even five- and six-year-olds.
Among the factors thought to explain the phenomenon of suggestibility in children are, first, that their memories are not as firmly implanted as those in older people and, second, that the mechanism for protecting and monitoring memories against suggestive intrusions are not as robust in young children as in older people. If James was repeatedly questioned about his dreams and his claims about a past life, especially by people who were themselves of the opinion that he had a past life, it would be consistent with psychologists’ understanding of how memory works in young children to suppose that he came to falsely remember and report various facts and events..

We stress that we do not take ourselves to have provided adequate explanation of the Leininger case. That is not our aim. What we hope to have done is to have shown how the approach we’ve been sketching in this book may be applied to this case.
*******************

Now, the authors themselves admit it is hard to account for the specific details given by James.

 

Systematic investigation of the case

In what follows, I shall examine different elements that have been claimed to show that James had memories of a past life.

 

 

At two-year of age, James was described as being “the centrepiece of a loving family of three living on the soft coastal plane of southern Louisiana” and Andrea’s “first and only child”.

But Bruce Leininger had four children from a previous marriage.
They didn’t live with James’ half-siblings so that the latter could hardly have contaminated their little brother’s memories.

 

Natoma’s bay

 

How likely is that little James took in the name “Natoma Bay” while visiting the Cavanaugh Flight Museum as he was 18 months-old?

USS_Natoma_Bay_(CVE-62)_at_Tulagi_on_8_April_1944_(80-G-235018)

Before 2001, there is only one obscure book “USS Natoma Bay (CVE 62), VC 63, VC 81, VC9” written by the “Natoma Bay Association” dedicated to the plane carrier.

Otherwise, the boat is only mentioned in one or two lines of books dealing with WW2 planes.

In the great scheme of things, the Natoma Bay was really insignificant.

Given the fact that the Cavanaugh Flight Museum is an aviation museum for the general public and not for WW2 aviation specialists, it seems very unlikely they would have mentioned the word “Natoma Bay” and it seems even dubious they would have known that name by heart.

It seems also very unlikely that a knowledgeable visitor would have been present at the right moment and would have said the words.

 

What is more, while little James might have been very astute, he was only 18-months of age!
It seems implausible (albeit not impossible) he would have picked up a funny name and have correctly identified it conceptually in order to retrieve it later on.

Could “Natoma Bay” have been mentioned in a TV show James listened to?

As the carrier wasn’t significant, this is  implausible. I am open to challenges if some reader can found documentaries where it is mentioned.

 

Given all of that, it appears unlikely that little James would have found the name “Natoma Bay”.

 

Jack Larsen

The next puzzle concerns “Jack Larsen”. Of course, James had no idea that there was a “Jack Larsen” on the “Natoma Bay”.

And in comparison to “John Brown” or “Bill Smith”, “Jack Larsen” wasn’t such an usual name for a 2 years-old to come up with.

So it seems again very unlikely he would find by chance the name of a “Jack Larsen”who happened to have been a comrade of James Huston Jr. on the Natoma Bay.

 

James’ GI Joes.

 

Jamees had three GI Joes with peculiar names.
“Hey, how come you named your GI Joes, Billy and Leon and Walter?”

Bruce’s parents knew no Leon and Walter.

“Because that’s who met me when I got to heaven.” James answered.

Then he turned and went back to play.

Bruce snatched a piece of paper and read it. He read it again but couldn’t bring himself to say what was on his mind.

He was holding the list of names of the men who were killed aboard Natoma Bay. He handled it to Andrea. On the list were James M. Huston Jr., Billy Peeler, Leon Conner, and Walter Devlin. Bruce gave her a flat look, then started shuffling and tossing papers around again. He had files with dates and details and could conjure up the records in a flash.
“They were all in the same squadron”, Bruce said. “VC-81.”

The three men were already dead when James Huston was killed.

Leon had blond hair exactly like James’ namesake GI Joe according to his cousin Gwen.
“He was an ideal boy: six feet tall, blond, blue-eyed, a football star who also played the violin.”

 

The final action figure [Walter] had auburn, almost red hair.

He was described as “Irish, with all that big red hair.”

The action Figure Billy himself was Brown-haired as Billy Peeler based on his photo.

 

Little James had no plausible way to find these names and these pieces information.

 

Given that, it is very unlikely he would have, by chance, found the right names of his deceased comrades (two of which aren’t that common) and able to associate them to the right hair colour.

 

James Huston Junior’s sister Annie

 

James’ place in the family

James correctly called James Huston Junior’s sister “Annie”, as only her brother called her that way.

He told Andrea that he had another sister, Ruth. Only he pronounced it “Roof”. She was four years older than Annie and Annie was four years older than James. When Andrea checked with Anne Barron, she said it was all accurate. Ruth was the oldest by four years, James the youngest by four years”.

Of course, this relies on Anne’s memory but the year of birth of one’s sibling is something almost all of us remembers very well.
It is at least remarkable he knew the name of the oldest sister and it seems unlikely he would have guessed it or sneak into his dad’s newspapers to find it.

 

Personal detail about the Huston’s family life

Things get a bit more ambiguous here.

We read: “Five-year-old James knew about their father’s alcoholism. He knew all the family secrets with a familiar intimacy.”

Here, we might envision that “Annie” asked leading questions to James.

“For instance, James recalled in surprising detail when his father’s alcoholism got so bad that he smashed things and had to go into rehab, he knew all about that”.

On the other hand, it also seems unlikely that Anne would herself take the initiative to mention such traumatising details to a five-year-old boy.

According to Jim Tucker, James already spoke of the alcoholism of his “father” when his real mother Andrea entered into his room with a glass of wine.

Given that, it appears likely that James did recall such details on his own, but this isn’t very evidential as this cannot be strictly shown.

James 3

James signed some of his drawing “James 3”. When he was asked why he signed them “James 3”, he said simply “Because I am the third James. I am James 3”.

If the parents recalled correctly, this would be a remarkable coincidence as the other James was James Houston Jr.

However, they might also have unconsciously put this into their son’s mouth in hindsight but that doesn’t seem likely.

According to Jim Tucker, James continued to produce the same drawing even when he was four-years-old.

Bob Greenwalt

 

Bruce brought James to a meeting of the veterans of the Natoma Bay.

 

The man looked down at James and asked in a hearty, robust voice,
“Do you know who I am?”
James looked him in the eye, thought for a second, and replied,
“You’re Bob Greenwalt.”

“How did you know that?” asked Bruce.
“I recognised his voice,” he told his father.

 

Now, if James had never heard the name “Bob Greenwalt”, this fact alone would strongly point toward a paranormal phenomenon.
But is this the case?

No.

One night, Andrea received a call from Bob Greenwalt she transferred to Bruce.
“A Bob Greenwalt want to talk with you” she said.
“I know who Bob Greenwalt was…” answered Bruce.

 

It cannot be conclusively ruled out that James heard half-consciously the name and some strong features of the voice because the mother might have activated the loud speaker.

 

Prenatal choice of his parents

 

One of the most puzzling episode concerns little James “choosing” his parents shortly before his birth.

“One day, after raking leaves together, Bruce told James how happy he was to have him as a son. James replied, “That’s why I picked you; I know you would be a good daddy.” Bruce did not understand. James continued:

When I found you and Mommy, I knew you would be good to me.”

“Where did you find us?”

“Hawaii. . . . I found you at the big pink hotel. . . . I found you on the beach. You were eating dinner at night.”

Bruce was dumbfounded. In 1977, Bruce and Andrew indeed went to Hawaii and stayed at the Royal Hawaii, a pink hotel on Waikiki beach. On the last evening, they had a moonlight dinner at the beach. Five weeks later, Andrea became pregnant with James.”

Unfortunately, we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that James saw the picture of the pink hotel and of the dinner at the beach somewhere in the house.

This doesn’t appear particularly likely because the parents would have remembered the pictures but this cannot be dismissed out of hand either.

Misidentification of the corsair

We now finally come to the only argument AGAINST the reincarnation hypothesis.

An exception was that Huston was shot down in a FM2 Wildcat, not a Corsair: veterans could recall no Corsairs on Natoma Bay. Nor could the details of James’s account of the plane being shot down be confirmed. However, a visit to Huston’s sister Anne Barron uncovered a photograph of Huston standing in front of a Corsair, confirming that at one time he flew this aircraft.

But even if James Leininger was really the reincarnation of James Huston Jr., we don’t have to expect that his memories would always be clear and precise.

What is more, Tucker contacted the Cavanaugh Flight Museum and learned that it had no Corsair on display between 1999 and 2003, the time period of James’s first two visits, so that this description cannot come from his early visit to the museum.

Under the hypothesis of reincarnation, it is not unreasonable to believe that James could confuse the plane he died in with a plane he was also familiar with.

Battle of Iwo Jima

Iwo-Jima

As the battle of Iwo Jima was very famous, it is not astounding that James Leiniger would be exposed to it or claimed he had died there.

That said, it is certainly curious that the only member of the Natoma Bay who died there was James Huston Jr.

Conclusion

The James Leininger’s putative reincarnation case is a complex one.

Many elements can be well explained through foreknowledge, suggestion and false memories.

It is, for example, conceivable that James was able to correctly identify Bob Greenwalt’s voice and describe his parents’ evening at Hawaii before his birth thanks to sensory clues and foreknowledge.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that little James would have come up with “Natoma” as that ship was rather insignificant and hardly mentioned to the general public. It is very unlikely he would, by chance, utter the uncommon name “Jack Larsen” who appears to be a member of that very ship’s crew. It is very unlikely he would have christened his three GI Joes according to the names and appearances of his real colleagues Billy, Walter and Leon while remembering having seen them in Heaven and it is really dubious he could have gleaned that information by sneaking into his father’s documents.

In light of this, other less evidential elements (such as James’s mentioning the alcoholism of his former “father” to Annie, “James 3”, his death at the battle of Iwo Jima and his seeing his parent before his birth ) reinforce the credibility of the case.

Does that mean we must believe in the reality of reincarnation?
The answer is a resounding NO.

Very unlikely combinations of events are bound to happen.

 

I do think, however, that sceptics need to recognise that this case is highly anomalous.

 

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My novel on parallel worlds, God and drugs

Here is the introduction to a novel I’ve been writing in English for eons…and perhaps even in some parallel world 🙂

Hier ist die Einführung in einen Roman, den ich auf Englisch seit Äonen geschrieben habe…und vielleicht sogar in irgendwelcher parallelen Welt 🙂

Ceci est l’introduction du roman que j’ai écrit depuis de très nombreux mois…peut-être même dans un monde parallèle 🙂

paralel

*************

Magonland…a world not entirely unlike ours but not completely similar either.

Magonland…eine Welt, die unserer nicht ganz unähnlich ist, obwohl sie auch nicht ganz dieselbe ist.

Magonland…un monde qui n’est pas vraiment différent du notre, bien qu’il ne soit pas tout à fait identique.
For countless centuries, the whole planet has been ruled by the iron fist of the “Grand Consil”, whose manipulative skills have grown so strong that they managed eventually to convince the large majority of Magoners that they live in a democracy and are sovereign over their own existences.

Seit zahllosen Jahrhunderten wird der ganze Planet von der eisernen Faust des “Großen Consils” regiert, dessen manipulativen Methoden so stark geworden sind, dass es ihnen schliesslich gelang, die grosse Mehrheit der Magoner davon zu überzeugen, dass sie in einer Demokratie leben und über ihre eigenen Existenzen entscheiden.

Depuis de nombreux siècles, l’entière planète a été gouverné par le poing d’acier du “Grand Consil”, dont les techniques de manipulation sont devenues tellement matures qu’ils ont finalement réussi à convaincre la grande majorité des Magoneurs qu’ils vivent dans une démocratie et dirigent souverainement leurs propres existences.

manip

But political oppression is far from being the only problem plaguing humans.

Aber die politische Unterdrückung ist keineswegs das einzige Problem, das Menschen plagt.

Mais l’oppression politique est loin d’être le seul fléau affligeant les humains.

Many eons ago, at a time when religions had not yet been eradicated, Ankou, a terrifying drug devouring the bodies and souls of its victims, had been introduced into the world by a powerful sect which disappeared shortly thereafter.

Viele Äonen zuvor, zu einer Zeit als die Religionen noch nicht vertilgt worden waren, wurde Ankou, eine furchterregende Droge, die die Körper und Seelen ihrer Opfer verzehrt, in die Welt hineingebracht von einer mächtigen Sekte, die kurz danach verschwand.

Dans un passé très lointain, alors que les religions n’avaient pas encore été  éradiquées, Ankou, une drogue terrifiante qui dévore les corps et les âmes de ses victimes, fut introduite dans le monde par une puissante secte qui disparut peu après.

junkies

And so did belief in Kralmur, the God of all gods whose glorious return so passionately preached by forgotten prophets never happened.

Und ebenso verschwand der Glaube an Kralmur, den Gott aller Götter, dessen glorreiche Rückkehr, über die vergessene Propheten so leidenschaftlich gepredigt haben, nie geschah.

Et il en fut de même pour la foi en Kralmur, le Dieu de tous les dieux, dont le glorieux retour prêché tellement passionnément par des prophètes oubliés, ne s’est jamais produit.

Despite a wealthy existence, a fantastic girlfriend and a decent job he feels passionate about, Curt Sunbloom no longer wants to live on.

Trotz einer wohlhabenden Existenz, einer fantastischen Freundin und einer anständigen Arbeit, wovon er sich begeistert fühlt, will Curt Sunneblum nicht länger weiterleben.

Malgré une existence aisée, une fantastique petite amie et un travail décent qui le passione, Curt Sunbloom ne veut plus vivre.

gott

Apart from having the same name as his dead father who tyrannized the planet for decades, he constantly feels a deep emptiness in his innermost being that nothing had ever been able to drive away for long.

Ausser der Tatsache, dass er denselben Namen wie den seines toten Vaters hat, der den ganzen Planet während Jahrzehnten tyrannisiert hat, fühlt er ständig eine tiefe innere Leere, die kein Ding dieser Welt auf die Länge hatte vertreiben können.

En plus d’avoir le même nom que son père décédé, qui a tyrannisé toute la planète pendant des décennies, il sent sans cesse un vide intérieur que rien au monde n’a jamais pu chasser pour longtemps.

As rumors of a gate toward another realm surface, he doesn’t hesitate and decides to search for it.

Als Gerüchte über ein Tor nach einer anderen Dimension auftauchen, zögert er nicht und entscheidet, danach zu suchen.

Lorsque des rumeurs concernant un portail vers une autre dimension surfacent, il n’hésite pas et décide de le chercher.

torandererdimension

But at the same time, mysterious lights are beginning to move around in the sky.

Aber zur gleichen Zeit beginnen gerade mysteriöse Lichter am Himmel, sich herum zu bewegen.

Mais en même temps, des mystérieuses lumières dans le ciel commencent a se déplacer erratiquement dans le ciel.

And Ankou seems to be evolving into something more sinister than it ever was.

Und Ankou scheint gerade, sich in etwas zu verwandeln, das noch düsterer ist als es je gewesen ist.

Et Ankou semble être entrain de se transformer en quelque chose encore plus sinistre qu’elle n’a jamais été.

anopu

Soon, Curt finds himself in the middle of a confusing war whose significance might transcend everything he believes in.

Bald befindet sich Curt mitten in einem verwirrenden Krieg, dessen Bedeutsamkeit alles übersteigen könnte, woran er glaubt.

Bientôt, Curt se retrouve au milieu d’une guerre déroutante, dont la signifiance pourrait très bien transcender toutes ses croyances.

transenence

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So, aside from my work as an emerging scientist, this novel is the main reason why I’ve been blogging less frequently for the last months.

Also, neben meiner beruflichen Tätigkeit als Nachwuchswissenschaftler ist dieser Roman der Hauptgrund, warum ich im Laufe der letzten Monate viel seltener gebloggt habe.

En plus de ma profession en tant que jeune scientifique, ce roman est la raison principale pourquoi j’ai rarement blogué pendant les derniers mois.

At the moment,I am undecided as to how to publish it.

Momentan weiß ich noch nicht, wie ich ihn publizieren werde.

En ce moment, je ne sais pas encore comment je veux le publier.

I consider it much more important to be read by many people than to make money out of it.

Ich betrachte es als viel wichtiger, von zahlreichen Menschen gelesen zu werden, als dadurch viel Geld zu verdienen.

Je considère beaucoup plus important d’être lu par beaucoup de personnes plutôt que de gagner de l’argent a travers cela.

In the parallel world I created, English is the common tongue but some people speak in French and other people speak in the Germanic dialect of my region.

In der parallelen Welt, die ich erschaffen habe, ist das Englische die gemeinsame Sprache aber einige Menschen sprechen Französisch während andere Personen den deutschen Dialekt meiner Region reden.

Dans le monde parallèle que j’ai créé, l’anglais est la langue principale mais certaine personnes parlent en français tandis que d’autres s’expriment dans le dialecte germanique de ma région.

So people interested in linguistic might like it 🙂

Also Leute, die an der Linguistik interessiert sind, könnten es mögen 🙂

Ainsi, les gens intéressés par la linguistique pourrait l’apprécier 🙂

mainwilla

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Are miracles improbable natural events?

Deutsche Version: Sind Wunder unwahrscheinliche Naturereignisse?

Stefan Hartmann is one of the most prominent scholars who deal with the philosophy of probability.

In an interview for the university of Munich, he went into a well-known faith story of the Old Testament in order to illustrate some concepts in a provoking way.

*****

 Interviewer: let us start at the very beginning in the Old Testament. In the Book of Genesis, God reveals to hundred-years old Abraham that he’d become father. Why shall Abraham believe this?

 
Hartmann: if we get a new information and wonder how we should integrate it into our belief system, we start out analysing it according to different criteria.
Three of them are especially important: the initial plausibility of the new information, the coherence of the new information and the reliability of the information source.
These factors often point towards the same direction, but sometimes there are tensions. Like in this example.
We have to do with a highly reliable source, namely God who always says the Truth.
However, the information itself is very implausible, hundred-years old people don’t get children. And it is incoherent: becoming a father at the age of hundred doesn’t match our belief system.
Now we have to weigh out all these considerations and come to a decision about whether or not we should take this information in to our belief system. When God speaks, we are left with no choice but to do that. But if anyone else were to come up with this information, we’d presumably not do it, because the missing coherence and the lacking plausibility would be overwhelming.
The problem for epistemology consists of how to weigh out these three factors against each other.

*****

It must be clearly emphasised that neither the interviewer nor Hartmann believe in the historicity of this story between God and Abraham. It is only used as an illustration for epistemological (i.e. knowledge-related) problems.

As a progressive Christian, I consider that this written tradition has shown up rather late so that its historical foundations are uncertain.

Still, from the standpoint of the philosophy of religion it represents a vital text and lies at the very core of the “leap of faith” of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

For that reason, I want to go into Hartmann’s interpretation for I believe that it illustrates a widespread misunderstanding among modern intellectuals.

I am concerned with the following sentence I underscored:

However, the information itself is very implausible, hundred-years old people don’t get children. And it is incoherent: becoming a father at the age of hundred doesn’t match our belief system.

According to Hartmann’s explanation, it looks like as if the Lord had told to Abraham: “Soon you’ll get a kid in a wholly natural way.”

And in that case I can figure out why there would be a logical conflict.

But this isn’t what we find in the original narrative:

Background knowledge: hundred years old people don’t get children in a natural way.

New information:a mighty supernatural being promised to Abraham that he would become father through a miracle.

Put that way, there is no longer any obvious logical tension.

The “father of faith” can only conclude out of his prior experience (and that of countless other people) that such an event would be extremely unlikely under purely natural circumstances.

This doesn’t say anything about God’s abilities to bring about the promised son in another way.

Interestingly enough, one could say the same thing about advanced aliens who would make the same assertion.

The utter natural implausibility of such a birth is absolutely no argument against the possibility that superior creatures might be able to perform it.

Did ancient people believe in miracles because they didn’t understand well natural processes?

A closely related misconception consists of thinking that religious people from the past believed in miracles because their knowledge of the laws of Nature was extremely limited.

As C.S. Lewis pointed out, it is misleading to say that the first Christians believed in the virgin birth of Jesus because they didn’t know how pregnancy works.

On the contrary, they were very well aware of these states of affairs and viewed this event as God’s intervention for that very reason.

Saint Joseph would not have come to the thought of repudiating his fiancée if he hadn’t known that a pregnancy without prior sexual intercourses goes against the laws of nature.

Although professor Hartmann is doubtlessly an extremely intelligent person, I think he missed the main point.

Are we open to the existence of a God whose actions do not always correspond to the regular patterns of nature? And whose preferences might not always been understood by human reason?

 

But as progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser argued, I think that the true epistemological and moral conflict only begins when God demands Abraham many years later to sacrifice his son, which overthrows very deep moral intuitions.

Like the earlier German philosopher Immanual Kant, Rauser strongly doubts that such a command is compatible with God’s perfection.