humanism

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Saint Nicholas- A Christian life lived, a story told

It has been remarked, with much truth, that all of us lead double lives, a life of our fancy, in a world of things as they should be, or as we should like them to be, and a life in a world of things as they really are. And this is as it should be. We can lift the level of real existence by thinking of things as we should like them to be. It is well not to walk with one’s eyes always fixed on the ground. (McKnight, cited below, Kindle location 401)

It is easy to hear the “real story” of Santa Claus, but few investigate further than looking it up to see the parallels between the Bishop of Myra’s life and that of the story of Santa Claus. There is so much more to his story–and indeed to stories in general–than that.

Saint Nicholas (270-343 AD) was a valiant man who fought prostitution, abortion, and poverty. He attended the council at Nicaea, from which we received the Nicene Creed. At that council, he defended vigorously the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He was an exemplar of Christian teaching put into practice. Not only that, but the legend which has grown up around his life has inspired and enthralled untold numbers of people through the Christian era.

It is important to note the intertwining of legend and truth in the stories about St. Nicholas, and the impact that has had upon innumerable people. George McKnight, writing in the early 1900s, explored a number of issues related to the mingling of fact and fiction in the life of St. Nicholas. The quote highlighted above touches on many of these topics.

First, there is power in narrative. A story which is told well is one which can effect change. We are impacted by fantasy in ways which cause us to reflect upon reality with new–perhaps better trained–eyes. Second, we, as spirited people in a world which we so often see only as the physical, are called to heights of reality by fiction. As McKnight noted, “It is well not to walk with one’s eyes always fixed on the ground.” Our eyes are driven upwards and outwards by the stories we hear–they cause us to interact with others in new ways, and they also cause us to think about topics which perhaps we had not even considered before.

The story of St. Nicholas is no different. Yes, legend has crept into the accounts of this godly man, but what is the purpose of that legend? Not only that, but is it possible to separate out the fiction?, McKnight also commented upon the nature of radical skeptical history being done in his time (about 100 years ago). He bemoaned the fact that nearly every facet of Nicholas’ life is thrown into question with the arrival of critical scholarship. But of course to focus merely upon what is historical fact or fiction is to miss the entire point of the life of St. Nicholas. McKnight goes on:

The story of St. Nicholas consists almost entirely of a series of beneficent deeds, of aid afforded to humanity in distress, accomplished either by St. Nicholas… or through his intervention… The conception of St. Nicholas, then, is almost that of beneficence incarnate. (Kindle Location 469-481).

That is, the story of St. Nicholas, and the legends that surround him, turn him into a type of Christ–one who is deeply concerned for humanity and showing Christian love for God and neighbor.

Yet this is not all there is to the life of the Saint. Although difficult to sift from the legends, there is a historical core to the life of St. Nicholas which is just as profoundly Christian as the legends which have grown up around him. With that said, we turn to the story of St. Nicholas, with an eye toward how his life is one of a Christian lived as well as a story told.

Nicholas is well-attested to have attended the council of Nicaea. There is a possibly apocryphal story about his st nicholas-heretics-presentsattendance there wherein he confronted the heretic Arias himself and slapped him in the face. The story continues, telling of how Nicholas was initially exiled for his act but later allowed to return after Arianism had been thoroughly acknowledged as heresy. Although it is nearly impossible to know whether this story is historically accurate, there is at least some truth behind the story in that Nicholas was known to vehemently defend the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.

Nicholas actively opposed prostitution. However, instead of simply condemning the practice, he also gave money to young women in need to keep them from turning to prostitution to feed themselves. Again, this truth served as the basis for a possibly historic legend in which Nicholas learned of three women who were about to turn to prostitution (or be sold into slavery, depending on the account) because they couldn’t pay their dowries in order to be wed. Nicholas is said to have thrown a bag of gold for each young woman through their window so that they could be married instead of sell their bodies. Again, this legend may not be true–but it points to the truth about Nicholas’ life–he gave to those in need and fought against the evils of prostitution. It also points beyond itself towards an ideal.

Nicholas fought against the Pagan practices, which led to his persecution and imprisonment by those angered by his preaching against false idols. Furthermore, his opposition to paganism included working against a number of practices in the pagan world, including abortion. Roman Catholics have continued to spearhead St. Nicholas’ commitment to helping children. A search for “Nicholas of Myra” turns up adoption agencies one after another. Christians have used Nicholas’ example as a call to end human trafficking and slavery. One can see throughout these historical kernels how myth and legend could grow up around this figure–fighting heresy, giving to those in need, and having utmost concern for the innocent were all aspects of St. Nicholas’ life. We don’t necessarily know the extent of his actions in these areas, but we know enough to be inspired.

Therefore, we turn to another part of McKnight’s thought-provoking quote at the beginning of this post:

…all of us lead double lives, a life of our fancy, in a world of things as they should be, or as we should like them to be, and a life in a world of things as they really are. And this is as it should be. We can lift the level of real existence by thinking of things as we should like them to be.

Take a moment to consider what McKnight is saying here: we know there is a realm of absolutes–a way that things should be. We also have a way that we should like things to be. But the way the world “really is” does not often reflect that. Yet we can enact change upon our realm of existence–we can “lift it up”–by focusing on the way that things should be, and living our lives differently because of that. St. Nicholas enacted this in his life, working towards the ideal while living in an imperfect world. The legends of St. Nicholas inspire us to do the same. We are not to focus so much on the critical challenge–which stories are true and which are “only” legends. Instead, we are to focus on St. Nicholas as a story–one which inspires us to change the world around us.

Nicholas’ life was one which fought against poverty, paganism, heresy, prostitution, and idolatry. He incorporated sound doctrine into his life and then lived it. There can hardly be a better example of a Christian life lived than that of St. Nicholas. Yet that is not all there is to the story of the “real” saint. No, his life is one of calling us to live a life for Christ as well. His life is action. It is a life incarnate with truth and the beneficence that comes from the Christian worldview. It is a call to follow Christ.

Sources

James Parker III, “My Kind of Santa Claus.”

Robert Ellsberg, “St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.”

George Harley McKnight, St. Nicholas (New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1917). This book is available legally free of charge in a number of digital formats through Open Library.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True” by Stephen McAndrew

Is there absolute truth? Such is the topic of Stephen McAndrew’s new book, Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True (hereafter DMYB).

McAndrew begins the work by noting that his book is an examination of a position and an affirmation of absolute truth. This is done because it is important to “examine even the most comfortable beliefs and leave standing only those that survive the disciplined assault of reason” (9).

He begins this testing by exploring some philosophical background, from Plato to positivism to relativism. These summaries are succinct, but provide a great background for those who haven’t read much on the topic. He turns next to a discussion of the effects of an abandonment of absolute truth. Relativism divorces one from any capacity to judge right and wrong. McAndrew notes, “These actions [such as the holocaust, racism, etc.] may brutally offend our sense of right and wrong, but the moral relativist cannot apply his or her values to others” (27).

What is interesting, however, is that McAndrew doesn’t stop at discussing relativism alone, but rather a conjunction of two beliefs: relativism and universal human rights. Many people, McAndrew notes, hold to relativism but also want to affirm universal human rights. In DMYB, he uses the discussion of the Nuremberg Tribunals–at which Nazis were tried for war crimes–as a case study for these conflicting views. He notes that “The defendants at Nuremberg argued that international law could only punish states and not individuals…. The Nuremberg court held that individuals could be punished for crimes against humanity under international law” (34).

Relativists, however, cannot consistently agree with the Nuremberg court, because “If there are no absolute truths, there can be no universal human rights” (35). These rights, if relative, are “contingent upon our cultural and historical position…” (ibid).

But relativism has a worse problem–it is contradictory. If all truth is contingent, then the statement “All truth is relative” is also relative, and therefore cannot be true for all people in all places (43ff). McAndrew next turns to the source for the “human rights urge”–the notion that all humans have certain universal rights. This source, argues McAndrew, is God (62ff). He makes a final case study when he turns to art–if there is no absolute truth, then there is no enduring beauty or truth in art (77ff).

The strengths of McAndrew’s book are readily apparent. He does a great job explaining difficult philosophical topics with terms and examples that anyone can understand. Not only that, but his discussion of Wittgenstein and the book 1984 give concrete, workable topics for those interested in the topic to use as talking points. My only criticism is that I believe I found a minor error. On page 85 McAndrew refers to the law of the excluded middle as the law that “propostion A and its direct contradiction–proposition B–cannot both be true at the same time.” This is in fact the law of noncontradiction. The law of the excluded middle is “For any proposition, it is either the case that the proposition is true or its negation is true.” This is a minor quibble, and one can derive the law of noncontradiction from the law of the excluded middle, but I thought I should note it.

Overall, the book may not convince everyone that there is absolute truth, but it will certainly force them to think about the positions they hold and wonder whether they can consistently cling to a relative absolutism. Those who already own a few books on the topic may wonder whether it is worth adding to their collection. Simply put, yes it is, if only to have at hand some great specific examples and talking points to discuss with relativists. It’s also a quick read that can be handed out to friends to  open up the path for future discussion. I highly recommend DMYB.

Source

Stephen McAndrew, Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True (Sisters, OR: Deep River, 2012).

Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of this book by the author. My thanks to Stephen for the opportunity to review his book.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Really Recommended Posts 02/03/12

Says the Madman, “Humanity is Dead, and We Are Its Murderers”– An insightful post which argues that naturalism has undermined the worth and value of humans.

Zombies of Christianity– I really enjoyed this discussion of the diversity of doctrine in Christianity and how to approach it.

My latest post on abortion generated some controversy, but I’d like to point out that scientifically, the unborn simply is a human being. One can find this not only in numerous medical textbooks on embryology, but also in the words of abortions-rights advocates themselves. Check out this phenomenal post which outlines the fact that the unborn are human beings, period- Medical Testimony.

C.S. Lewis is one of the greatest Christian Apologists of all time. Check out this post which brings us Beyond Mere Christianity.  Interested in literary apologetics? Check out Holly Ordway’s guest post on my blog here.

A Response to the Problem of an ‘Evil God’ as Raised by Stephen Law.– An excellent article, which I don’t fully agree with (I think Edward Feser answers the challenge correctly, for example), but which provides a thorough critique of Law’s position.

The Artist: A Film Review and Reflection- Holly Ordway shares her thoughts on “The Artist.”

How Many Atheists in America? Fewer than You Might Think– Pretty self explanatory.

Really Recommended Posts 10/15/11

Mexico City Proposes Temporary Marriages– Yeah, it’s crazy.

On Symbiosis– Paul Adams points out a simple, but important point. Check it out.

Is Intuition an Unjustifiable Reason for Faith?– Great post by Erik Manning on the use of of intuition and issues of faith.

What is True Christianty?(tm)– at Josiah Concept Ministries, a great discussion of what makes someone a Christian (or not).

Humorless Humanist Humor– At “No Apologies Allowed”–a great comic showing the bankruptcy of humanism.

Is Mormonism a Cult?– A phenomenal side-by-side comparison of Christianity and Mormonism.

Richard Swinburne on “A skeptical age.”

 

Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig: Thoughts and Links

The debate I’ve been hyping to friends and family happened tonight: Sam Harris, one of the “New Atheists” and author of the books The Moral Landscape, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith went up against William Lane Craig, one of my favorite living philosophers. Craig has a PhD in philosophy, as well as a ThD. He’s written extensively on philosophy of religion, apologetics, and time. He’s the author and editor of too many books to list, but they include The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Reasonable Faith, and Time and Eternity. The topic of the debate was “Is Good from God?”

I wanted to share some links for all of you, along with my thoughts about the debate.

Links

Audio of debate here.

Video of the debate here.

Craig rebuts Harris’ allegation of misquotations here.

Craig’s brief post-debate impressions here.

Craig’s thoughts on his strategy in the debate here.

Another analysis of the debate here.

See Wintery Knight’s summary of the debate here.

More links will be posted as I find them.

Analysis of Debate

It is important to note that the topic of the debate is “Is Good from God?” The topic is not “Does God exist?” Nor is it “Is the God of the Old Testament Evil?” Remember this. Also, my apologies in advance for my tense shift throughout. It’s almost 2AM and I’m tired.

Craig Opening

Craig’s opening statement started with him asserting he’d maintain two propositions

I. If God exists, then we have a solid foundation for objective moral values.

He backed this contention up by saying that it is true even if God does not exist, because it is a conditional statement (“If God exists…”). Further, he argued that God’s nature provides the standard against which all moral vales are measured. Important: Note that here Craig is not arguing that objective moral values are grounded in arbitrary commands from God, rather, Craig argues that God is the standard against which morals are judged. It would be true to say God is good simpliciter.

As far as moral duties are concerned, it is these which are constituted by God’s commands, however that does not mean the commands are arbitrary, but rather grounded in the essential nature of God.

Craig’s second contention was:

II. If God does not exist, then there is no strong foundation for objective moral values.

He argued:

1) Why think that human beings have objective moral worth? On atheism, humans are merely “accidental byproducts” of naturalistic evolution. What therefore would mean that humans are more valuable than hyenas, other primates, rocks, etc.?

2) He quotes Michael Ruse, an atheistic philosopher, who points out that morality is, on atheism, illusory. It is a mere socio-biological convention. And to think that morality is objective is simply false. He also quotes Dawkins as saying that we are just machines for propagating DNA. On such a view, how can we be objectively valuable?

3) Craig argues that Harris simply redefines good in nonmoral terms. He argues by stipulation that “well-being” = good, which is to beg the question. Craig argues that Harris has provided no reason to equate the two, and in fact has no grounds from which to do so.

4) Natural science only shows what “is” not what “ought” to be. It can only describe actions, not prescribe them.

5) Harris explicitly denies free will within his writing and so it seems impossible for there to be any culpability for actions. How can someone have “ought” applied to them if they are not free to make choices about their actions?

Harris Opening

Harris begins by noting, as did Craig, the areas of agreement. He agrees that to deny objective morality can lead to some horrific views, and he uses anecdotes to support this claim. Craig and Harris seem to agree that objective morality is something necessary for meaning in the universe. I find no contention with this part of Harris’ discussion.

He goes on to argue that there are “facts” and there are “values.” He argues that science can move from the subjective facts to objective values, although I found his argument here unclear.

Finally, he gets to the point where he specifically outlines his view, which is based upon the well-being of conscious creatures.

Harris argues that “If the word ‘bad’ applies, it is ‘wrong.'” Further, “The minimum standard of moral goodness is to avoid the most possible misery for everyone.” Harris asks us to envision a world in which every conscious being was suffering to the maximum possible extent. He says that this is obviously bad (= wrong) and so we can scientifically determine what is good by working towards the well-being of conscious creatures.

At this point in my notes I wrote “Why?” next to the quotes from Harris. And I think that is exactly the problem. Thus far, Harris has done a good job outlining what he thinks is wrong, but he hasn’t done anything to say why it is wrong, other than by stipulating that it is wrong.

Harris goes on to argue that

1) Questions of right and wrong depend upon minds

2) Minds are natural phenomena

3) Therefore, morality can be understood by science because we can study minds

Against Harris, I would note that each of these premises are contentious, and he doesn’t argue within the debate to support any of them. First, premise 1) is questionable because it actually goes against the nature of objective morality. If something is objectively wrong, even were  there no minds in the universe, the action would still be wrong. Here Harris makes the mistake of thinking that because minds make moral judgments, moral judgments are dependent upon minds. I think that is false, and it needs argumentation to support.

Second, premise 2) assumes physicalism, which is the position that our minds are wholly composed of matter, and there is no non-physical property of mind. I’ve argued against this position elsewhere (see for example, my posts here and here). But the thing is that Harris simply takes 2) as given. To be fair to Harris, this is a debate so he hardly has the time to make a substantive case for physicalism. My point here is that Harris’ argument hardly establishes his conclusion–there is a lot of footwork to be done to establish 1) or 2). I think that both have serious difficulties and are generally non-starters.

Finally, Harris briefly asserts that the God of the Old Testament is evil.

Craig First Rebuttal

Craig’s first rebuttal began with him summing up his contentions I and II above. He points out that Harris didn’t attack either contention directly.

Craig points out that the debate is not about Old Testament ethics, but cites Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? for those interested in the topic.

Harris in particular did not argue against contention I at all, so Craig turns his guns against Harris’ assertions about objective morality on atheism.

First, Craig asks “If atheism is true, what makes flourishing of conscious creatures objectively good?” He goes on to say “They might like to flourish” but that does not provide an objective reason to ground morality in their well-being.

Second, Harris admits that it is possible for rapists/murderers to be happy (in a state of well-being) to the point of being a “peak” in his “moral landscape.” But if that is the case, then an objectively evil entity, on Harris’ account, could occupy the peak of the moral landscape, which would entail a contradiction, because an objectively bad person was viewed as an objectively good thing/state of affairs. I found this particularly powerful to refute Harris, and I liked how the camera shifted to him almost immediately after this statement by Craig. Harris did not look happy.

Finally, Craig argued that because Harris denies freedom of the will, he can’t actually hold that humans have any obligations whatsoever.

Harris Rebuttal 1

Harris started off by saying “that was very interesting.” Fair enough.

Then he says, “Ask yourselves what is wrong with spending eternity in hell”. As he continued along this line of reasoning, I wrote “Harris is curiously arguing against hell…?”

Basically, rather than trying to defend his view whatsoever from Craig’s lucid attacks, Harris turned to the problem of evil. It was here that any doubt in my mind about this debate faded away. Harris made no attempt to defend his position, but rather argued that we have no way to know that Islam is not the true religion, on Craig’s argument, and that the God of the Old Testament is evil. In other words, he abandoned the attempt to defend his position immediately upon the gaping holes Craig’s rebuttal blew through it.

He also seems to have missed Craig’s point that God is essentially good and instead argues against a straw man by asserting that God is not bound by duties, which Craig had already explicitly denied. Then Harris made some offhand remark about psycopathy and religion. He says that he can’t think of a less moral framework than that of the God of the Old Testament.

Craig Rebuttal 2

Craig starts his response by saying, “The less moral framework is atheism!” because it is “not a framework!” Craig seems as baffled as I am that Harris didn’t actually respond to any argument he had leveled against Harris’ “landscape.” Further, he points out that Harris is resorting to red herrings–Sam is trying to derail the debate into a discussion of the problem of evil and Old Testament ethics rather than a debate about whether atheism or theism can better ground objective morality.

Further, Craig notes Harris is totally wrong when he argues the goal of theism is to avoid hell. Rather, theism worships God because He, as the greatest possible being and source of our existence, etc., etc. is worthy of worship, not because of the desire to avoid hell. That is a simple misrepresentation of theism!

Interestingly, Craig also notes that all theists can utilize his contention I, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or Christian (etc.). Remember this.

Harris Rebuttal 2

Harris finally attempts to defend his position by saying his position is defended because we “need only assume that the worst possible suffering” for every conscious being would be an objectively bad state of affairs. He says “My argument entails that we can speak objectively about a certain class of subjective facts” namely, moral values. So basically, his argument boils down to “Just believe that x is objectively bad, and my view works!”

Unfortunately, Harris once more gets sidetracked in trying to argue against the existence of God by asserting that the pluralistic nature of religions experience disproves religions. As I’ve noted elsewhere, a mere plurality of opinions does not entail the falsity of all.

Craig Closing Statement

Craig notes that God is the greatest conceivable being, so to ask “Why should we think God is good?” is like asking “Why are bachelors unmarried?”

Further, he points out that Harris has yet to answer the schoolyard question, “Why?” Why, on atheism, should we think that the worst possible state of affairs is objectively bad? We might not like it, but that doesn’t ground it objectively.He closes by saying “All together now, ‘says who?'”

Harris Closing

Again, Harris leads with an argument from religious diversity. He also complains that Craig’s argument for a theistic ground of morality could equally be used by the Muslim, which is exactly correct. Craig said earlier that any theist could ground their morality on God.

Finally, Harris notes that just as we aren’t losing any sleep over the fact that Muslims think we (Christians) are going to hell, he isn’t losing any sleep over Christians thinking he is going to hell. But what kind of argument is this? Someone is unconcerned about a rival hypothesis, so we should think the rival is false? I mean, I’m not losing any sleep over the fact that Harris thinks the basis of my religion is psychosis, because I think it is ridiculous!

Q and A

I simply can’t ignore the Q and A from this one. Some of the questions were just silly, but the two that struck me were both asked of Harris. The first question was from someone who basically asked “If a God were proposed that would meet your [Harris’] definitions of objective morality, would you grant that he could ground morality?” Harris answered very well by saying yes, but then there would be no reason to propose God as the grounds for the morality, for one would have to grant Harris’ account worked.

The second question was the kicker. The person asked, basically “You base objective morality on the an assumption that the worse possible world is bad, why think that is not subjective [based upon an arbitrary assumption]?” Harris answered the only way he could. He said we have to take it as axiomatic that it is objectively bad.

So basically, Harris admits that on his view, we must simply have faith that some things are objectively bad and that the well-being of conscious creatures is objectively good. We must simply assume that something is true, and that is to be our grounds for belief. As Harris put it, it is axiomatic, so it doesn’t have to be justified. On such an account, then, belief in objective morals is, on atheism, a leap of faith–an ungrounded, unjustified (epistemically) leap. I’ll have to be forgiven for thinking Harris failed to adequately defend his position.

Overall, I’d say Harris seemed to fare better than Lawrence Krauss in his debate with Craig (my analysis here), but upon thinking about it, I think Harris may have done far worse. The bottom line is Harris lined up atheism’s best attempt to ground objective morality like a house made of building blocks. Craig came along and knocked them over. Then he laughed.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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