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.

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 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.

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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.

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Über die Inspiration der Bibel und anderer Bücher

English version: On the Inspiration of the Bible and other Books. Feel free to comment there at any time!

Fundamentalisten und generell Evangelikalen glauben, dass wenn Gott existiert und an menschlichen Angelegenheiten interessiert ist, Er uns eine irrtumslose Bibel geben würde, wo Seine Natur auf eine eindeutige und vertrauenswürdige Weise offenbart ist.

Wir leben in einem sehr unsicheren Zeitalter und ich bin mir wohl bewusst, dass ein solcher Glaube eine große Bequemlichkeit nicht wenigen Menschen bringen kann, die das Gefühl haben, einen unerschütterlichen Anker gefunden zu haben.

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Aber wenn kluge und intellektuell ehrliche Menschen mit unverkennbaren biblischen Widersprüchen und vor allem Stellen konfrontiert werden, wo Gott als ein hässliches Monster dargestellt wird, werden sie am häufigsten das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten und nachtragende Gegner des Christentums werden.

Solche Bekehrungen zum Antitheismus stammen oft aus der binären Weise, auf welche ihr Gehirn programmiert worden sind, den biblischen Kanon zu berücksichtigen: wie ein junger Pastor es mir vor kurzer Zeit gesagt hat: wenn man anfängt, die Wahrheiten von Details im Alten Testament zu bezweifeln, wäre alles in Frage gestellt; sodass es unmöglich wäre, an die Auferstehung von Jesus zu glauben.

Es gelingt ihnen nicht, die Möglichkeit zu betrachten, dass es andere Weisen gibt, die Bibel zu lesen, zu verstehen und zu berücksichtigen.

Ich persönlich lese die im biblischen Kanon hereingenommenen Bücher auf dieselbe Weise, wie ich Bücher aus christlichen Autoren zwischen 300 nach Christus und der heutigen Zeit lese, das heißt als die Beschreibung von menschlichen Erfahrungen und Gedanken über Gott.

Wenn ich die Zeugnisse von anderen Christen lese, werde ich bestimmt denken, dass sie fehlbare menschliche Wörter über Gott schreiben, aber ich bin dennoch ganz offen dafür, dass sie profunde Einsichten über Gott und die Art und Weise bekommen haben, wie man sein Leben führen sollte.
Ich bin auch völlig offen dafür, dass Gott Wunder bewirkt hat und dass sie feindlichen geistlichen Wesen begegnet sind.

Und wie ich mit dem Beispiel des Lebens von Martin Luther erklärt habe, sogar wenn Leute entsetzliche Sachen tun und falsche (und sogar lästerliche) Dinge über Gott lehren, habe ich kein Problem damit, an die Realität mancher ihrer Erfahrungen mit Ihm zu glauben.

Um ein konkretes Beispiel zu nehmen, lese ich die Bücher von Paulus auf dieselbe Weise, wie ich die von C.S. Lewis lese: ich glaube dass beide vorbildhafte Christen, große Verteidiger des Glaubens und außergewöhnliche Männer waren, und die Existenz von logischen, empirischen und theologischen Fehlern in ihren Schriften verhindert mich keineswegs daran, all die richtigen Sachen wert zu schätzen, die sie herausgefunden haben.

Aber wenn wir nicht glauben, dass die sich im biblischen Kanon befindenden Bücher inspirierter als andere Bücher sind, wie können wir den Unterschied zwischen richtigen und falschen Aussagen über Gott machen?

Während ich nicht für alle progressive Christen sprechen kann, glaube ich, dass wir unsere Theologie auf der Tatsache basieren müssen, dass Gott perfekt sein muss, um überhaupt Gott zu sein.
Sogar wenn Menschen fehlbare Geschöpfe sind, sind sie gut im Stande, die Vollkommenheit zu erkennen und herauszufinden, was moralisch richtig und falsch ist, wie Paulus es in den ersten Kapiteln des Briefs zu den Römern erklärt hat.

Wie ich in einer zukünftigen Post nahe legen werde glaubte und lehrte eigentlich Paulus (oder zumindest der Schreiber der Apostelgeschichte), dass über Zeus nachdenkende heidnische Autoren viele Sachen über Gott begreifen und herausfinden konnten.

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Das Trilemma vom C.S. Lewis

English version: the trilemma of C.S. Lewis.  Comments are welcome there at any time!

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C.S Lewis war zweifelsohne der größte christliche Apologet des letzten Jahrhunderts. Obwohl die Tragweite einiger seiner Ideen bestimmt übertrieben wurde, glaube ich wirklich, dass man wahrheitsgemäß von ihm sagen kann, dass er eine rationale Art von Christentum verteidigt hat, die weder das Intellekt noch Emotionen vernachlässigt.

Einer seiner berühmtesten Argumente war das sogenannte Trilemna über die Person von Jesus von Nazareth.

Unter der Voraussetzung der Zuverlässigkeit der Berichte über Jesus Behauptungen, Gott zu sein, ist es irrational, Jesus nur als einen weisen Lehrer unter vielen zu betrachten. Nein, gemäß der Sachen, die er über sich selber gesagt hat, könnte er nur der Herr von allen Dingen, ein Lügner oder ein Wahnsinniger sein.

Während manche Feinde des christlichen Glaubens keinerlei Problem mit den zwei letzten Möglichkeiten haben, haben die meisten Skeptiker versucht, das gesamte Argument als ein falsches Trilemma zu verwerfen: Jesus könnte sehr wohl ein großer Mann sein, der nur bezüglich seiner Göttlichkeit unrecht hatte.

Obwohl diese Antwort für mich einige intuitive Plausibilität besitzt, denke ich nicht länger, dass sie gültig ist.

Zur Jesus Zeit sahen Juden Gott als den Schöpfer des Himmels und der Erde an, der radikal anders und seiner gesamten Schöpfung extrem überlegen ist. Nach einer langen und allmählichen Entwicklung während der Zeit des alten Testaments betrachteten sie schließlich Gott als das ultimative Wesen, das verantwortlich für die wundervollen Eigenschaften der von ihnen beobachteten Natur war.

Es ist wahr, dass im Laufe der Geschichte nicht wenige religiöse große Menschen (moralisch) einzigartig waren, sogar wenn sie glaubten, mit nachweislich abwesenden übernatürlichen Kräften ausgerüstet zu sein, und es bedeutet keineswegs, dass sie geistesgestört oder unehrlich waren.

Aber es heißt noch lange nicht, zu behaupten, das für die Existenz von allem verantwortliche Wesen zu sein.

Stellen Sie sich vor, Sie würden über die folgenden Wochen bemerken, dass Sie anfangen, den Gedanken immer ernster zu nehmen, dass Sie der Schöpfer der gesamten Wirklichkeit sind, die dennoch real und kein Traum ist.

Wäre es keine gesunde Reaktion, sofort zur psychiatrischen Abteilung des nächsten Krankenhauses zu gehen?

ImageSo glaube ich, dass es trotz all der Herausforderungen, die seit der Zeit von C.S: Lewis formuliert wurden, keine überzeugende Antwort gegeben hat.

Selbstverständlich beruht dies auf der Historizität der göttlichen Behauptungen von Jesus. In zukünftigen Posten werde ich auf die Frage eingehen, ob man daran glauben kann oder sogar soll.

 

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Eric Seibert on Biblical atrocities

Lothringische Version: Eric Seibert iwer Biblische atrozitäte.

Unjust violence and misogyny in the  old testament

Progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser interviewed Biblical Scholar Eric Seibert on the topic of violence in the Bible.

Eric Seibert

He did an excellent job showing why the usual strategies of Conservative Evangelicals such as Paul Copan and William Lane Craig completely fail to show that the god they worship is not a moral monster (or does not suffer under a split-brain disorder).

I don’t, however, share his pacifist convictions. I believe in Just War Theory and in the righteous retribution of wicked deeds.
So it is not the presence of violence within the Bible which shocks me but atrocities committed against innocents, such as Canaanite babies or toddlers, or a law stipulating that a raped woman having not dared scream should be stoned as a adulteress.

I think there is just no way one can defend such kinds of laws as stemming from God.

Now this raises lots of question concerning the inspiration of Scripture. If we know there are clearly parts of it which contradict God’s will, how can we trust the others?

I think that a paradigm shift is clearly necessary.

Evangelicals should stop seeing the Bible as being necessarily more inspired than other Christian and Jewish books, as I explained in a prior post a long time ago.

Such a change does not, however, inevitably implies embracing theological liberalism and anti-supernaturalism.

To take a concrete example, I read the books of the apostle Paul in the same way  I read books from C.S. Lewis: I believe that both were examplary Christians, great defenders of the faith and extraordinary men, and the presence of logical, empirical and theological errors in their writings does not prevent me at all to appreciate all the right things they figured out.

But if we don’t believe that the books within the Biblical Canon are more inspired than books outside it, how can we make the difference between right and wrong beliefs about God?

While I cannot speak for all progressive Christians, I believe that we should base our theology on the fact that God has to be perfect in order for Him to be God. Even tough human beings are faillible creatures they are quite able to recognize perfection and to find out what is morally right and wrong as Saint Paul explains in the first chapters of the letter to the Romans.

Even if the books of C.S. Lewis are not inerrant, most Christians agree he was an extraordinary man of God, had many genuine spiritual experiences and reached profound insights in God’s nature.

But God did not directly speak through him, he used his own culturally-conditioned concepts to write about the Almighty, which involves he also got God wrong at times.

I view the Apostle Paul and other Biblical writers in exactly the same way: like modern Christian writers, they had genuine experiences with and thoughts about God they wrote down.

Of course such an approach does not eliminate all difficulties.

For why did people pretending to be believers commit atrocities they justified theologically? Conservative Protestants (and former ones) focus on the problem of atrocities in the Old Testament, but this is only one part of a more general difficulty: the problem of divine hideness.

Christian conquistadors viewing the slaughter of native Indians as the divine Will or isolated tribes routinely sacrificing their children to their deities are troubling as well.
For in all these situations, God allowed countless humans to have noxious and murderous false beliefs about Him.

While I cannot address such a huge problem with a few lines, I believe that God is able to redeem the suffering of all the victims of religious violence who just have to choose Him for an everlasting bliss.

Whilst this does not solve the problem, I find that this largely mitigates it.

On the Inspiration of the Bible and other Books

 Deutsche Version: Von der Interpretation der Bibel und anderer Bücher.

The Bible as a solid anchor?

Fundamentalists and more generally Evangelicals believe that if God exists and is interested in human affairs, He will give us an inerrant Bible where His nature is revealed in a consistent and trustworthy manner.

We are living in a very uncertain world and I am well aware that such a faith can bring a great comfort to quite a few people who have the feeling to have found an unshakable anchor.

The Bible as a strong anchor in a deep ocean.
The Bible, firm anchor of our faith?

But when clever and intellectually honest persons are confronted with undeniable Biblical contradictions, and above else with places where God is portrayed as  being an unjust tyrant, they will most often throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and become resentful opponents of Christianity.

Such deconversion experiences often stem from the binary way their brain has been programmed to consider the Biblical Canon: as a young pastor told me recently, if one begins to doubt the truth of details in the Old Testament, everything is called into question and it becomes impossible to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

They fail to consider the possibility there are many other ways to read, understand and see the Bible.

I personally read the books accepted within the Biblical Canon in the same way I read books from all Christian authors between 300 A.C. and our 21cst century, that is as the description of human experiences with and thoughts about God.

When I read the testimonies of other Christians, I will certainly consider what they write as fallible humans words about God, but I am quite open they might have received profound insights about God and how to lead one’s life. I would be also quite open to the possibility that God acted in miraculous ways among them and that they encountered hostile spiritual entities.

And as I explained with the example of the life of Martin Luther  even if people do egregious things and teach mistaken (and even blasphemous) things about God, I have no problem believing they have genuine experiences with Him.

To take a concrete example, I read the books of the apostle Paul in the same way  I read books from C.S. Lewis: I believe that both were exemplary Christians, great defenders of the faith and extraordinary men, and the presence of logical, empirical and theological errors in their writings does not prevent me at all from appreciating all the right things they figured out.

But if we don’t believe that the books within the Biblical Canon are more inspired than books outside it, how can we make the difference between right and wrong beliefs about God?

While I cannot speak for all progressive Christians, I believe that we should base our theology on the fact that God has to be perfect in order for Him to be God. Even if human beings are fallible creatures, they are quite able to recognize perfection and to find out what is morally right and wrong as Saint Paul explained in the first chapters of the letter to the Romans.

Actually, as I will argue in a future post, the apostle Paul (or at the very least the author of the Acts of the Apostles)  believed and taught that Pagan authors thinking about Zeus can get quite a few things about God right.

The apostle Paul, preaching and debating with Greek philosophers.
Apostle Paul at the Areopagus

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The trilemna of C.S. Lewis

Deutsche Version: das Trilemma von C.S. Lewis

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C.S Lewis was undoubtedly the greatest Christian apologist of the past century. Tough some of his points are certainly overstated, I do believe it is only fair to say he defended a rational form of Christianity which neglects neither the intellect nor the emotions.

One of his most famous arguments was the so-called trilemna concerning the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Provided the New Testament reports about Jesus’s claims of being God are reliable, it is irrational to just consider Jesus as a wise teacher among many others. No, according to what he said about himself, he could only be the Lord of all things, a liar or a lunatic (LLL).

Whilst some enemies of the Christian faith have no problem with believing one of two last options, most skeptics have tried to dismiss the whole argument as being a false trilemna: Jesus might very well have been a great man who was just wrong with respect to his divinity.

While this response did have some intuitive appeal to me, I no longer believe it is valid. At the time of Jesus, Jews viewed God as the creator of heaven and earth who is radically different from and superior to the whole creation. After a long and progressive evolution during the time of the Old Testament, they finally saw God as the supreme being responsible for all the wonderful features of nature they could observe.

It is true that during the course of history, quite a few religious great men were (morally) exceptional individuals, even if they believed they were equipped with supernatural powers which were demonstrably absent, and this by no mean involves they were insane or even dishonest.

But this is a far cry from claiming to be the being responsible for the existence of everything.

Imagine that over the coming weeks you were to realize you’re beginning to take more and more seriously the idea you are the creator of the entire reality, which is nevertheless real and not a dream.

Would it not be a safe reaction to immediately go to the psychiatric unit of the next hospital?

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So, I believe that in spite of all the challenges formulated since Lewis brought up this idea, there has been no convincing answer.

Of course, all of this relies on the historicity of the divine claims of Jesus. In future posts, I’ll go into the question as to whether one can or even should believe this or not.

 

 

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