Posted: Aug 19, 2013 9:38 pm
by Byron
Will's defense of God presents a series of proofs, but these fail in one fundamental regard, illustrated succinctly in this quote:-

"It is these three positions I seek to explain in relation to the existence of a god." [my italic]

We are not debating the existence of a god: we're debating the existence of the Christian god, as traditionally understood. This is a specific proposition: a triune god composed of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost in early modern English), with an interest in humanity and our eternal fate.

Apologetics tend to break down into two approaches: top-down, and bottom-up. The emotional approach starts with Jesus and works upwards: Will, appropriately for a debate of this nature, has started with an abstract deity that he intends to, literally, flesh-out into the incarnate God in Christ of Christianity.

This is, unfortunately, a non sequitur of epic proportions. The abstract god of the deists, and the triune personal god of the Christians, are clean different things. The disconnect between premise and conclusion can be illustrated with this formula:-

P requires Q, therefore X.

P is the universe, Q a deity of some kind, and X the Christian god.

Will attempts to leapfrog from the proofs that he claims set the "foundation for a god" with an appeal to morality. This fails on its own terms. Humanity does not enjoy a consistent ethic. The Jewish scriptures record G-d-fearing men offering their daughters up for gang-rape to preserve hospitality norms in Genesis and Judges; Israelite armies massacring the Amalekites in Exodus, Judges and Samuel. Will would perhaps argue that the inclusion of these atrocities in texts held sacred isn't an endorsement -- although it is portrayed as coming at Yahweh's command -- but that's beside the point that humanity lacks a consistent ethic. Anthropology offers us a litany of inconsistency: cannibalism, institutionalized human sacrifice to the sun god, institutionalized slavery (slaves are ordered to obey their masters, good or bad, in the New Testament books of Corinthians and Peter), the torture and execution of heretics, "murder" and "theft" defined in so many contradictory ways as to be meaningless beyond "killing or taking of property that the law forbids." The list of things we take to be wrong that were once thought right, in equal parts tedious and brutal, goes on, but the point is made. These aren't "variants" on a "basic structure": they're wildly inconsistent, rooted in warring premises, built on incompatible foundations.

As the point fails on its own terms, there's no need for me to go on to why it would fail regardless of its internal coherence, but I will, as this gets back to the heart of why Will's argument fails. It again tumbles into the chasm between premise and conclusion. Even if humanity had a consistent ethic, it would do nothing to prove a conscious and omnipotent god of three persons (in this theological context I use "person" interchangeably with "personal": an entity that is conscious and self-aware). The tyranny of the non sequitur again snares Will. Alternate explanations for a consistent ethic would pass Occam long before a god, let alone the Christian god.

The traditional "proofs" all take place in the abstract world of logic and theory, since they predate the rise of systematic empirical observation and the scientific method. When more tangible proofs are attempted, they either contradict the evidence, as with Will's claim of a consistent moral law; or they exceed it, as does Will's reliance on longing for a god, and personal testimony. Again and again, Occam puts the boot in, offering simpler explanations that better fit the evidence, and don't create more problems than they solve.

An innate tendency to desire a god, or even to long for the vaguest spiritual reality: maybe our imperfectly evolved brains projecting subconscious desires outwards; or a salve to the fear of death; perhaps a desire to see order in the chaos of the world. It's unnecessary to establish any of these as definitive: none makes the leaps and strains of "longing, therefore the triune Godhead."

Personal experience of a god: again our brains misinterpreting subjective experiences. We can misinterpret objects easily enough, reading a flat earth from the horizon, or the miasma theory of disease from the connection between stench and plague. How much easier to mistake thoughts for a god, projecting out mind outwards, personifying it, and worshiping our unwitting creation. Again, it's not necessary to believe that this is, merely that this, or an alternative, is more likely that the supernatural world of the orthodox Christian god.

We return now to the central flaw of defending orthodox Christianity as a rational construct. The anything-goes world of the supernatural is ipso facto irrational, since it lacks any coherence or logic in its operation. Will tacitly acknowledges this by beginning not with God in Christ, but with an abstract first cause version of god that might as well jump ship and sail off for our companion debate on the existence of a deity. Will doesn't start with the triune Godhead: he starts with something he views as consistent and logical, and tries to work up to the miracles, incarnation, and the rest of Christianity's theological deadweight. Swallow this, then, perhaps, you'll swallow that. It does not follow, as that is not this, a first cause not God in Christ. The moment he gets beyond a god that might as well be a deist construct, his argument is broken on the rocks of evidence, by claiming an ethical consistency that's as nonexistent as the God he's trying to defend. That Will feels it's necessary to claim that consistency is striking: he frames rationalism as a logical, consistent thing, and tries to hammer God in Christ into a framework alien to its birth.

The awkward fact for those who try to reconcile the Christian god with modernity is that we occupy a paradigm alien to the worldview of the women and men who first fell to their knees in worship of Christ. Ancient cosmologies varied, but what they had in common was smallness: the universe was our solar system and not much beyond. Disease was an infliction from the gods, or else unexplained, not something attributed to the amoral agents of destruction that we know bacteria and viruses to be. Empiricism has blasted through ancient paradigms with the ruthlessness of dynamite through rock: what was once the wisdom of the ages is now so much rubble. Christianity is rooted in claims of "revelation" that are repeatedly shown to misrepresent the world, from the heliocentric solar system to germ theory to evolution. What sort of revelation is consistently wrong? Blame interpretation as you like: the claims are not that obscure, not that open to misunderstanding. Their being the groping of limited humans gives Occam much less work than their being transmissions from the spirit world stuck forever on a bad line.

To clarify any queries from Will (or the peanut gallery -- my gratitude for your interest, folks!), I'm not arguing that negative consequences or immorality sink a rational defense of God in Christ. Rational isn't necessarily nice. The Godhead could be a rational monster. Rather, I am arguing that the orthodox representation of God is so illogical and inconsistent as to make a rational defense untenable.

God loathes sin, but, omnipotent and omniscient, chooses to create it: this is not consistent or logical behavior. God loves humanity so much that he will sacrifice a part of himself to save us, but chooses to condemn much of humanity to the everlasting flamepit of Gehenna (in the Gospels) or to save us all (in the climax of Paul's letter to the Roman church). Christian counsels ironed out, such as they could, contradictions in its apostolic documents, but the foundational inconsistency remains, and cannot be removed without editing the texts, itself made impossible by claims of apostolic and scriptural authority.

We have here a portrait of God that depends on the assertions of texts, counsels and institutions, with the occasional wild-eyed prophet thrown into the mix for variety. We have a god that, on one hand, Will argues, cherishes order in the universe, but on the other, arbitrarily intervenes in human lives, works miracles, and the slew of chaotic behavior to be found in two millennia of visions, charismatic "outpourings of the Spirit," and other random zaniness. It's claimed this is not random at all: it's a mystery of faith, which is a cop-out so shameless a person can but admire its brazenness. God in Christ is a rational and consistent entity that cherishes order -- except on innumerable occasions when he doesn't. Again the conclusion flees the premise.

I quote the church's time-bound and ruthless persecution of women and homosexuals not to show that God is bad -- God's morality could be different from ours and consistently appalling -- but to show that God is inconsistent in multiple spheres. What is the rational reason for subordinating women to the power of men, or for sending gay men to damnation? None is given in the Christian bible from which the prohibitions are drawn: the church makes blustering appeals to natural law, and half-hearted attempts at reason, but in the end, it comes down, once again, to "because the Bible says-so," which is shorthand for "because God says-so."

The Platonic dialogue Euthyphro nailed the flaw inherent to god-given morality centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Is something good because the gods will it, or do the gods will something because it's good? Apologists will argue that the Godhead is goodness-itself, inherently good and therefore the source of all goodness, but this misses the point: the dilemma presupposes a substantive definition of "goodness," and Christianity, burdened with a swathe of contradictory and internally-incoherent doctrines and source-texts, has no consistent definition of goodness, God-given or otherwise. The Colgate apologist William Lane Craig popularizes the infamous "divine command theory," which comes down to "good is whatever God says it is," and is ridiculed for it, but he at least acknowledges what arguments like Will's fail to: the god of Christianity is a capricious entity, unreasoned, and irrational. Craig, however, does take the same broken path from P to Q, therefore X as Will's argument, attempting to use logical proofs to establish the existence of an illogical, incoherent god. Like Will, Crag tacitly admits the incoherence of his case by relying on a premise at war with his conclusion. Both desire the primacy of reason: but they apply it to an unreasonable end. A house divide against itself cannot stand.

By valuing reason and logic so highly, they also acknowledge the paradigm shift from revelation to rationalism. For the church of Christ, reason was traditionally second-best to revelation, the pitiful groping in the dark forced on men (of course men, God's hung, the schlong is sacred) in areas that God, without rhyme or reason, denied them the miraculous light of his illumination. Will's argument would be bizarre to Paul of Tarsus and the apocalyptic prophet who proceeded him: why exalt what Paul called the foolishness of men's wisdom, made foolish by the light of Christ? Reason and revelation are at odds. Always have been, always will be. The application of systematic philosophy and logic to the Christian universe has been awkward since the beginning, from the Platonism of the early church, through the Medieval scholastics, to today's grating attempt to give us "theistic evolution," a god of order who, for reasons unknown (aren't they always?), implements his design for life in a chaotic battle of blood, pain and adaptation. His desire is order, his method is chaos: a house divided, again and again, every time that our pitiful reason is set against "revelation," and "revelation" is found wanting.

The Christian god is internally incoherent, inconsistent, and his means of communication is consistently found to be drowned by static and confusion. Everything we "know" of him is rooted in human assertion, which paints a veneer of reason on a rusting heap of received assertion, assertion that, when challenged, swiftly retreats to the authority fallacy. Rational terms are used to defend an irrational spirit-realm, which contradicts everything we have been able to observe of material reality, and overturns the observed norms of the universe at a whim. It's little wonder. Christian theology compels Will to argue by defective analogy, such as comparing the Trinity to aspects of the sun, an analogy that compares things different in kind: a non-sentient body with different observable aspects, to a mysterious personal Trinity "known" from assertion, its essence as mysterious as the evidence for its existence. By their fruits shall ye know them! God in Christ is not rational: he is a remnant of a dead paradigm, a castle built on the eschatology of a 1st century doomsday prophet. Traditional Christians are happy to use the fruits of a worldview that contradicts theirs, from antibiotics that acknowledge the brutal chaos of evolution, to the electricity that provides an observed explanation for what was once the lighting wrath of God. As the theologian Rudolf Bultmann said, you cannot consistently believe in the spirit-world of the ancients while listening to the wireless and using electric light. Your means contradict your message. You're attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable.

God in Christ isn't rational: he's an apocalyptic vision in denial, buried under twenty centuries of rationalization and damage-limitation. This will be illustrated again and again, as his supposed tools are debated, and show themselves wanting.

wordcount: 2,253