Posted: Sep 01, 2013 10:47 pm
by Byron
My thanks to Will for his thorough rebuttal.

My reply consists of an introduction, followed by a look at Christianity's civil war, Will's justification for divine inaction and his failure to rebut the contradiction between heaven and earth, and a conclusion arguing that the trainwreck of squaring miracles and rationality embodies a wholesale crisis in the faith.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

And so it begins. Will has conceded the irrationality of a swathe of Christianity before we've even reached the mid-point of the debate. Transubstantiation, a dogma central to the largest Christian institution, the Catholic Church -- a dogma paralleled by the mysterious metousiosis of Orthodoxy -- is dismissed as, "A theology which evolved from a superstition and not really grounded in anything solid." This is what I meant when I said the opposition case is, literally, self-defeating. Will isn't defending protestantism: he's defending Christianity. As he's helpfully shown, it can't be done.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Why is Christianity at war with itself, protestant against catholic, Catholic against Orthodox, liberal against evangelical? At first sight, this civil strife could be viewed as healthy debate, but it isn't. Healthy debates resolve one way or the other. Christianity, with no foundation beyond "revelation" that rests on assertion and authoritarianism, goes around in circles. Textual criticism of the Bible hasn't been accepted nearly two centuries after it was developed; evolution is still denied after a similar timespan; and miracles are defended long after miraculous explanations were chased from regular spheres of life, from the causation of disease, to the blast of a lightening bolt. Christianity, torn from the moorings of a holistically miraculous worldview by the discoveries of systematic human observation, now bolts its miraculous claims onto the natural universe that the systematic observation has unveiled. The mirror has shattered, never to be whole again. As the next line of Yeats' poem so rightly says,

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, ...

Will is reduced to resorting to quantum mechanics as a saving throw for miracles, which is, in itself, self-defeating: if miracles occur by natural processes, however mysterious they may currently be, they cease to be miracles. We both want to avoid getting snared in definitions, but this one is important: Christian miracles are not meant to be understood. They are, by their nature, inexplicable acts of the triune God. From an orthodox Christian POV, attempting to reduce his acts to mechanical processes verges on blasphemy. That Will feels the need to regularize miracles in this way just testifies, if further testimony were needed, that Christianity is at odds with reason. You know an argument's lost when it must resort to using the opposition's terms.

Civil War

It would be a mistake to write off Will's resort to a "general theology" that "remains largely untouched by these various discrepancies" as blinkered protestantism. Will is attempting to construct a rational case for Christianity, and, it appears, he cannot see a way to include the miracle of transubstantiation in that case.

It may be because the church's defense of transubstantiation is egregious in its "because we say so" chutzpah. The church admits that there's not even the possibility of proving transubstantiation by empirical means, regardless of how far our abilities advance, but has rendered belief in it a dogma central to the faith. It has defined transubstantiation as a miracle that's simultaneously immune to evidence and essential to believe. You believe it because the magisterium of the church catholic and universal tells you to believe it. Philosophical justifications don't precede the authoritarianism, they justify it. No argument or evidence can shift this dogma. That's what dogma is. It is as naked an example of the authority fallacy as you could ask for. No better exemplar of the irrationality of miracles could you want.

We will get onto the Bible in-depth later on, but beforehand, it's essential to lay the groundwork in the section on miracles, since miraculous claims and authoritarianism underpin the "reliability" of scripture. The Bible vs the magisterium is, famously, the civil war that tore a swathe through Christianity, but the pertinent thing isn't that Christians disagree, but how they disagree. The terms on which battle is waged speak of the merits of the war. Instead of rational skepticism vs dogma, Christianity tore itself apart by pitting one authority against another: church vs Bible. Scripture, like the magisterium, is claimed to be a miraculous revelation of God in Christ, the sure basis of faith and practice. The miraculous nature of the holy book goes by many names: biblical authority; biblical inerrancy; sola scriptura; God-breathed; biblical infallibility. For all the nuances of irrationality, the thread of a miraculous nature ties the Christian interpretation of scripture. The reformers argued "our authority trumps your authority," which translates as "our assertion trumps your assertion." The "plain reading of scripture" is a rock built on unevidenced, unreasoned authoritarianism.

The reformers didn't say the magisterium was wrong because it was irrational or unevidenced: they said it was wrong 'cause the Bible told them so. The magisterium fired back that the Bible is inseparable from the church. Authority vs authority. For all that Will calls transubstantiation "superstition," his case is no different. Just better disguised.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Where's the Apocalypse When You Need It?

Upon seeing the weakness of his response to theodicy, you can understand why Will didn't attempt to defend transubstantiation.

One aspect of Will's argument is breathtakingly self-defeating, as he redefines "omniscient" to mean "not omniscient," or as Will phrases it, "The concept of inherent omniscience that God has limits to what he can and cannot know." No better example could be given of how hamstrung Will is by the incoherent, incompatible axioms of the argument he is attempting (impressively, but hopelessly) to defend. He is obliged to argue that God in Christ is all-knowing and all-powerful, not to mention all-good, but also, that sin and suffering are not God's fault. Defects in the pot must not lead back to the potter. Will is forced to produce this tangle of illogic: "If God chooses to know something, he can learn it, but if God desires not to know something (such as the freewill of mankind as is seen in Genesis) than that knowledge is not known to God." God knows, but God does not know, but only because God choses not to know. You know? Non sequitur chases the tail of non sequitur until they devour themselves. The Ouroboros of debate.

Compared to this incoherence, Will's "learning from suffering" take on theodicy rises to the level of grossly inadequate. God wants us to learn, but God's endzone is total revelation and total knowledge, as the world is made one in Christ. As William Tyndale translated Paul of Tarsus's letter to the church in Corinth, "For our knowledge is unperfect, and our prophesying is unperfect: but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is unperfect shall be done away." God in Christ wants us to learn from mistakes, but ultimately, he'll reveal all. Why wait? Will doesn't explain, for there is no explanation. It doesn't make sense. Never did, never will. This series of contradictory axioms isn't rational: it's an ex post facto saving throw for the failure of Christ to return when his earliest followers said he would (and for the world to end when Jesus of Nazareth said it would -- that the historical Jesus preached an imminent apocalypse will be addressed more fully in the coming parts).

I'll mention in passing that "learn from suffering" fails to account for suffering without purpose, that teaches lessons no one needs to know, and destroys without hope of education. The "free will" and "myserious ways" apologetics can be tossed into the fray at this point, and all fall at the aforementioned hurdle: if God in Christ wants the world to be different, has the power to make it different, and ultimately intends to do this very thing, why wait? Why did God create the world like this to begin with?

(As for God not desiring perfection, I'll direct Will to the beatitudes before we come on to the Bible.)


The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

Will sums up his defense of miracles thus:-

"Within Christianity, miracles serve one purpose and that is to be a sign towards God, be it directly or some attribute of God's. Miracles are not random supernatural events, but rather improbable events demonstrating God's sovereignty over creation, and again pointing towards God."

To which I reply: what's God got to prove? God in Christ is, according to Christian orthodoxy, omniscient and omnipotent, and intends to remake the world into paradise, where none suffer, and none want, and all shall be well. This is God's stated desire (as "revealed" by his self-appointed mouthpieces in the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church). Miracles are a "sign" of a destination that God in Christ could bring about this instant. Moreover, by Christianity's own terms, God had no reason to create this imperfect reality to begin with: he doesn't learn anything from it (he's all-knowing); we don't need to learn anything from it (one day, God will reveal all); it is, literally, pointless. It is not rational for an all-powerful god to create a reality that is opposed to his desires and revealed will. The conclusion is at war with the premise.

Miracle claims are nothing but a poor attempt to explain why reality as we experience it contradicts the assertions of Christianity. They are nothing but burnished wish-fulfillment. This is a rational explanation for miracle claims, one that follows directly from its premise, and it is one that directly contradicts Christian orthodoxy. If a heresy makes more sense than orthodoxy, perhaps orthodoxy is nothing but the side that lucked out in the chance game of history. The question is, deliberately, rhetorical.

A strong argument could be made that Will has already conceded this debate by admitting that key components of Christianity -- transubstantiation, divine omniscience -- are indefensible. They might not be the whole, but they are loadstones without which the edifice crumbles. Unlike the wreck of orthodox Christian theology, this cracked pot does not reflect the skill of the potter. My expressions of respect for Will are wholly sincere. His case is juggling an impossible number of burning torches, which threaten to consume it at a moment's notice. He is fighting a lost battle, and I suspect he is fighting it a good deal better than I could do in his place, but admiration for the person doesn't impart worth to the case that they're tasked with defending. It takes no undue ego on my part to say that I'm watching the opposition crumble before me: as I said in my opening, all I am required to do is highlight the defects of argument that Will is compelled to display.

I return to what I said in the beginning of this post: a case fought on the opposition's terms is a case that's already lost. Will isn't fighting on those terms from want of skill or conviction. He's defending Christianity as a rational construct because a rational worldview is what we have deduced from the available evidence. Disease issues not from the wrath of God, but from the amoral and unthinking instinct of microscopic agents of destruction; storms and famine don't come as punishment for sin, but as a result of the natural cycle of the earth, wholly unaware of our presence upon its surface. Christianity is an earlier deduction overtaken by events, a dead paradigm of our existence that refuses to shuffle off alongside geocentrism and miasma, due to its institutional weight, emotional power, and power straight-up. It's no conspiracy, no creation of a cackling elite: its leaders are as trapped in the dead paradigm as its followers. Those who've broken free can take little if any pride from their escape, as circumstances and temperament play such a part in who stays and who goes. Those who have escaped the dead paradigm of orthodox Christianity haven't broken out the mental prison because they're better, but because they, in large part through luck and good fortune, have received the gift to being able see the world more clearly. A true revelation. Christianity makes empirical claims and is found wanting. Escapees don't see in whole, but they do see less in part. Those still inside don't even deny this, not really, for they accept the rational worldview in their day-to-day lives, but save their faith with signs of the world as they want it to be. Those signs are miracle claims. They lack any rational basis on the very terms that gave rise to their creation. Miracle claims aren't signs of the Christian god. They're signs that God isn't there, and the framework in which he was created has been overtaken by events.

Miracles are not only denial of reality as we are best able to discern it, they're denial of rationality itself. Miracles are because-I-say-so dressed in invisible robes and proclaimed emperor. Miracles are claimed to exempt the church from the rules everyone else must obey, the norms everyone else must observe. To claim a miracle is to announce that reality is whatever we want it to be. Their power comes not through any conceptual merit, let alone actuality, but the dead-weight of two-thousand years of Christendom, buttressed by emotional and institutional need. Now Christendom is dead, those walls are the walls of Jericho, and they shall fall. Not with the blast of horns, but from the loss of the struts that compensated for foundations that were always absent.

Join me in picking through the rubble in our next installment!

... And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?