Missing Where I Stand

Sean Carroll has a long, thoughtful, and complicated atheist apologetics post at Cosmic Variance (HT: Harold Henderson @ The Daily Harold). But, largely it misses the mark that it shoots at. It might serve well as a doctrinal statement of “unfaith”, but as an assault on Christian theology, perhaps because of the assumption that knowledge of same is not required when attacking the foundations is not required … turns out to be wrong.

Now, I don’t yet have the scholarship or the facility at hand (yet) to meet Mr Carroll’s arguments face to face, however … I can point to them. This essay starts out as a critique of Mr Eagleton’s review of Mr Dawkin’s recent book. Some of his errors include:

  • Mr Carroll starts out by pointing out that one need not be current in theology to dismiss it. If God doesn’t exist necessarily the whole deck of cards collapses. This argument is not new. However … it misses two points. First, theology is the study of God, belief is not required. Disproof of God is theology as is Mr Carroll’s post. Second, it might be relevant to study what those theologians have said concerning the particular objections being raised (it might be noted that this point is noted by Mr Carroll, but then he only considers Mr Eagleton’s contribution to the theological argument not more qualified individuals).
  • Mr Carroll then defines the “insoluble” problem of “sophisticated theology” as

    It’s a millennial-old problem, inherited from the very earliest attempts to reconcile two fundamentally distinct notions of monotheism: the Unmoved Mover of ancient Greek philosophy, and the personal/tribal God of Biblical Judaism.

    From Lossky (link below)

    But theology must be of universal expression. It is not by accident that God placed the Fathers of the Church in a greek setting; the demands for lucidity in philosophy and profundity in gnosis have forced them to purify and to sanctify the language of philosophers and of the mystics, to give to the Christian message, which includes but goes beyond Israel, all its universal reach

    The point being, that the Christian Fathers did address these issues and more importantly resolved them.

  • Mr Carroll then presents the thesis that the Hebrew development of monotheism as primarily a political one. Over at Postiive Liberty some weeks ago, Mr Rowe (I think if I recall rightly) similarly dismissed the possibility of the theological relevance of the first Ecumenical council as it as had been called to assembly by Constantine for largely political reasons. The thrust of this point is unclear. It’s not as if, the development of the use of Nuclear fission loses its validity because it was developed in response to political exigencies.
  • Mr Carroll writes:

    Unsurprisingly, the monotheistic conception reached its pinnacle in the work of Aristotle.

    This is apparently incorrect. After Aristotle, Greek monotheistic philosophical/theological reasoning reached its pinnacle in Plotinus, or so say the “expert” theologians dismissed as irrelevant by Mr Carroll (and others).

  • Mr Carroll’s next point is that for Aristotle, motion was teleological not mechanical. Today Descartes notions of the mechanical universe prevail, which would perhaps make the author of Genesis proud. Genesis 1 by modern ideas following Umberto Casuto, Leo Strauss, and Leon Kass is a ontological/cosmological description of creation from which one of the authors leading points is the Universe is intelligible and that Man is special because the Universe is intelligible to him. That is to say, the project of understanding how creation is ordered has its success because God created the world to be intelligible by man.
  • Mr Carroll notes the influence that the ideas of Conservation of Momentum have had on modern theology, but neglects the influence on modern ideas of person from the idea of the Trinity. Descriptions of quantum reality reflect similar lines of thinking to the apophatic descriptions of the God given by the Fathers mentioned above.

However, ultimately, Mr Carroll is right. Christian theology is … well … folly or a scandal. In a very short little book by Vladimir Lossky (Orthodox Theology: An Introduction) writes:

  • “scandal to the Jews”: how could the unique, the transcendent, the God without common measure with man, have a Son, Himself God, and yet a man, humiliated and crucified?
  • “folly to the Greeks”: how could the impersonal Absolute incarnate itself in a person, how could the unmoving eternity enter into time? How could God become that which one must, necessarily, go beyond to merge with Him?

Theology and belief is folly and a scandal if and only if one rejects revelation. Revelation must be an experience of the insane (delusional) or liar. It requires the rejection of the experience of … well … likely millions of people throughout history by insisting on their incompetence and your personal lack of the same. Is Atheism just an elitist impulse of the spiritually deaf?

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  1. Many experiences are viewed as revelatory, but some are thought to reveal the truth of Hinduism, some of Christianity, some of Islam, some of Bacchus, etc. The problem isn’t “rejecting” revelation as such, but choosing which — if any — of the many to credit. In any case, one has to conclude that many real experiences don’t signify what the experiencers think they do.

  2. Mark says:

    Yes, discernment of what revelation is relevant is a problem. But Atheism requires the rejection of all revelation … and largely on the basis of the idea that such rejection is possibly a vexing problem.

    However, given that revelation and its rejection is such the crux of the Atheist position (if it is indeed the case), one might wonder at the unenthusiastic manner in which most Atheists pursue this question themselves. If, for example, as the East (Orthodox as well as Asian religious experience) suggests that asceticism and stillness/hesychasm is the path to theosis and/or theophany, then one would expect some Atheists to trod this way as well if only to see for themselves that which they have rejected.

    Many secular/atheist scientists chide the ID movement for not investigating their theories on their own. But, isn’t this accusation equivalent to rejecting revelation while not seeking it oneself?

  3. Mark —

    Mmm, interesting points. FWIW, Sam Harris (The End of Faith) is a fan of Buddhist practices because in his view they require no metaphysical assumptions. His quarrel is with the metaphysics, not the experiences themselves.

    I think the problem for us unbelievers (however named) investigating the veracity of revelations is that we don’t understand what sort of evidence counts. I believe Daniel Dennett cited evidence from a recent study that intercessory prayer was found to have no effect, for instance (I am not up to date on this line of investigation). If rightly reported, is that relevant? Certainly from my many days in church I learned that unanswered prayers were not evidence against the existence/omnipotence/benevolence of the posited deity.

    I mention these examples not to ridicule but to suggest that it may be difficult for us to agree on where an investigation should begin.

    Incidentally, as I understand it, that’s also the rap on ID (or one of the raps), that it has produced no hypothesis that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by particular fossil or biological evidence.


  4. Mark says:

    I haven’t personally experienced Theophany … but from what I understand “veracity” and “validity” is not the main question on the mind of those who meet the burning bush (or however their experience unfolds), most are thinking about how to best put in context or understand what just happened to them. Just as those struck in the face with a baseball (out of the blue) don’t wonder if the baseball exists or the striking was valid, but more what just happened to me, why and what does it mean?

    I think that studies double blind or not of whether intercessory prayer help or not depend on the assumption that said agents from whom intercession is sought are not intelligent or don’t mind such detection. Double blind studies work against unintelligent microbes and natural phenomena. But they wouldn’t necessarily work if you assume intelligence on the part of the subject of the test.

    I agree it’s a difficult matter, and as I pointed out above, belief based purely on dialectic or reason is folly (or scandal).