Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Jesus, Confucius and Socrates

Auditing a graduate seminar in Eastern Ethics has been exactly has helpful as I thought it would be.  How's that for an ambiguous statement?  Seriously, I anticipated the seminar would boost my basic grasp of Eastern religion and its relationship to Christianity, and it has.  But I didn't predict the insight that came over me yesterday during a session on the Analects of Confucius.  (Warning: I'm going to generalize a lot.)

Confucius was a remarkable, humble man who understood human nature and society. As a sage of the ancient world, he has few peers.  His name and writings are synonymous with wisdom, world-wide.  His brilliance allowed him to attract disciples and he was a master teacher as well.  Confucius taught the importance of both dutifulness (faithfulness to the rules of society) and empathy (knowing people and how to treat each situation with care). Both were needed because rigid rule following could lead to the abuse of people.

During the discussion, we often made comparisons to the ancient Greek philosophers. When Socrates came up, the professor commented extensively on some of the lesser-known aspects of his life.  Socrates spoke to women and slaves--scandalous behavior.  He would not accept pay for teaching.  He was eventually put to death by the authorities for his progressive ways.

I trust that you, my reader, saw the connections immediately.  The similarities between these men and Jesus is striking. I've always respected Confucius and Socrates, but seeing the similarities between all three somehow elevated my reverence for them.  I could write a nice essay about how the greatest teachers in history had so much in common.  But then something else, something far more arresting, became evident.

Both Confucius and Socrates are famous for sometimes admitting their *lack* of knowledge or implying that someone else possessed the greater genius.  They never proclaimed themselves as the greatest mind of all time or allowed others to proclaim it.  Interestingly, this is where the similarity with Jesus ends.  Matthew recorded these words of Jesus:  "The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." (12:42) Seriously?  Similarly, while Confucius taught his disciples about the Dao (the Way), Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Luke tells the story of Jesus standing up in the synagogue to read a prophecy that could only refer to the work of God, he said, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."  The audacity!  Socrates and Confucius admitted their limitations, as any human being should.  How could someone like Jesus, who we know from other stories to be kind, compassionate, honest and courageous, stand there and basically announce the supremacy of his intellect, wisdom, goodness and divinity?

I invite the reader to answer the question, "What is the best explanation for these facts?"  Is it that Jesus was an arrogant, self-deluded hypocrite?  Or is it that Jesus was something more than a great teacher?  Or some other explanation?
Monday, January 28, 2013

The Sisters of Psyche

My kids love the Greek/Roman myth stories.  Often at dinner, one of them will say, "Tell us a Roman god story, dad!"  I've fallen out of the practice recently, sadly.  So I decided to brush up on some new stories for dinner-time, and I stumbled upon the story of Cupid and Psyche.  In a nutshell, Psyche is the world's most beautiful girl, but since no man has the courage to woo her, she remains sadly alone.  A prophecy then instructs her family to leave her on a hill top, to be claimed as the bride of a terrible monster.  But after being whisked away to a palace of unimagined splendor and comfort, and meeting her invisible groom, she is convinced that he is no monster, but a gentle and handsome lover.  When she relates this to her sisters, they swell with jealousy and conspire to plant doubts in Psyche's heart and mind.  "Of course he remains invisible--he knows you would recoil at his hideous appearance!"  (I'll leave the rest of the story untold.)

Then a connection blossomed in my mind--doesn't this sound *exactly* like much of the "new atheism?"  They frequently wage their war against theism precisely on the same front--trying to persuade believers that God is really a monster, despite our experience to the contrary.  Troubling stories from the early days of Israel's Palestinian conquest are trotted out again and again.  Now, I admit, these are hard to make moral sense of.  They require careful and thoughtful treatment and the answers are by no means obvious.  But, just as we would have advised Psyche, we should be careful about letting these charges wash over us and infect us with doubt before they have been properly tested.  Consideration of the source should lead us to prescribe an extra measure of scrutiny.  Moreover, we should not easily give up the testimony of our own experiences with God as a loving and gracious father!  Otherwise, we may find our ourselves the protagonists of a modern-day Greek tragedy of faith.
Monday, April 02, 2012

Dawkins Is Right and Wrong

Atheists (like Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, etc.) and various anti-religious folk often claim things like the following:

(R) Being religious inhibits intellectual development.

The reasoning is that when the answers to all of life's hard questions are just handed to you--either in Book form or by a pastor--you are less likely to develop the ability to think for yourself. The problem with (R) is that it is modally ambiguous. Some atheists mean to say something like

(R*) Necessarily, being religious inhibits intellectual development.

This claim is patently false. All I have to do is point to a counterexample like Thomas Aquinas who was religious as well as a brilliant thinker. But what about a weaker version of the claim?

(R**) Possibly, being religious inhibits intellectual development.

From my experience as a Christian and a philosophy instructor at the university level, I'd have to say that (R**) is tragically true. I've met too many young Christians who, being content to regurgitate Sunday school answers to hard questions, have seldom, if ever, thought critically about their faith or any of life's hard questions. In addition, because they are so fearful of having their beliefs challenged, they are unable to rationally and objectively assess the arguments for or against Christian belief.

In defense of Christians, however, the following claim is also true:

(A) Possibly, being anti-religious inhibits intellectual development.

Atheists can also become intellectually lazy and irresponsible when they fail to take arguments for Christianity seriously. And because they are also (often) fearful of having their beliefs challenged, they can't see the force of arguments against their own position.

Here's the takeaway: if you're a Christian, prove the anti-religious folks wrong. Be a counterexample to (R). Don't be lazy or fearful, because these attitudes are not honoring to God. In fact, they are violations of our King's direct orders. "Fear not!" "Always be prepared!"
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Two Kinds of Simplicity

"I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity."
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Monday, August 10, 2009

The Good Life

Great video on what life is and isn't about. Simply and powerfully presented. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Dissertation Topic Musings #1

So there's this thing called a "dissertation" that I'm supposed to write for my PhD. If topics were geographical regions, then you could say that I've located the country in which I wish to write: the ethics of religious belief. So now where am I going? I thought I would simply spit out a few thoughts--things I have strong intuitions about--that might help me pinpoint the city in which I will write. (Warning: I am not a Calvinist, in the ordinary sense of the word. So don't post comments like, "People don't choose to believe, God chooses." I am familiar with this view.) An additional qualifier here is that I would like to write on something that might actually be of use to the church in the area of evangelism.

1. People are, in some sense, responsible for either having or lacking theistic belief. That is, if you believe in God, it is, in some small way, due to something that you did of your own free will. (Or perhaps, we are not responsible for believing that God exists, but we are responsible for the subsequent choice to "come to God." But this is not a choice to believe something, it is a choice to act in a certain way. But then again, maybe this choice depends on a further belief--my belief that I need to come to God. How do I come by that belief?)
2. Believing in the existence of God is necessary for salvation. As the author of Hebrews says, "for he who comes to God must believe that He [exists], and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." (Heb. 11:6)
3. We do not typically, or perhaps ever, just decide to believe things. Rather, we do other things that indirectly either lead us toward or away from various beleifs.
4. Two people with exactly the same evidence can reasonably come to different conclusions regarding the same proposition, e.g., the proposition that God exists.
5. If someone goes to hell, it is not simply because they failed to be reasonable. There is more to it.
6. I do not understand exactly why it is that some people believe in God and some do not. But even if it is attributable to some virtue, it does not follow that such a believer has "earned" anything before God. Such a believer may then go on to "come to God" and be saved, but the believing and the coming do not earn the saving. A person may believe that God exists, and beg God for salvation, and none of this obligates God in any way, nor does it cause God to do anything. God is free in all His actions. As C.S. Lewis says of Aslan, "He is not a tame lion."
7. If what I've said is close to correct, then when we talk to an unbeliever, there must be something we can say to them by way of how they might come to believe. There must be something they can do to indirectly help them toward belief. Perhaps it is the cultivation of some virtue?
Friday, July 24, 2009

Everyone Makes Exclusive Truth Claims

Tim Keller really has a way of putting things. Yesterday was a prime example.

Have you ever talked to someone about the gospel only to hear them say (something like), "I don't have a problem with you believing in Jesus if it gives you peace and comfort. But you shouldn't go around trying to convert people!" In giving this sort of response, people think that they are being very tolerant and pluralistic. "Everyone can believe what they like, just don't impose your beliefs on others." This perspective sounds good because it seems to convey the idea that everyone's take on spiritual reality is equally good. It avoids committing the worst of sins: making an exclusive truth claim.

But there's a problem with their problem with my evangelism, as Keller said. What they really mean is, "I have a problem with you believing in Jesus the way you do," or "you shouldn't/can't believe the way you do." But this flies in the face of the very sentiment they think they are communicating. They are, in effect, saying, "My take on spiritual reality (in which everyone's beliefs are equally good) is better than yours (in which Jesus is the only way)." They are making an exclusive truth claim. You can't escape making exclusive truth claims, it seems, if you want to say that there is something wrong about evangelism/sharing the gospel.

Does this sound right to you? Do you think someone can stand in criticism of evangelistic efforts without making some sort of exclusive truth claim?