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Monday, March 09, 2020

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I would want to ask your interlocutor, "Why Islam?" Is his choice explained in the unpublished rest of his letter? If this part of the correspondence hasn't been revealed for reasons of privacy, then I'll pry no further.

Dear Bill,

Thank you for the reply.

I'm not sure that Buddhism, a religion in which practitioners deny the reality of the self, is happier or richer than Islam. What qualities do you measure a religion's happiness or richness by?

I've considered Judaism, but there is some aesthetic quality—if that is the right word—missing from it. It seems limp and impotent to me.

I haven't considered non-Incarnational Christianity. I only really started to appreciate Christianity after I studied its central doctrine and realized that it's absurd. It's absurd, but it's beautifully absurd. Unitarian Christianity seems either non-Incarnational by definition or makes God his own Son. So, I've never considered Unitarian Christianity either.

I suppose Unitarian Christianity might satisfy my intellectual scruples, but it seems to me there is something missing from it, like Ave Marie without the singing, or Berjon's Still Life with Flowers without the peaches and flowers.

Bill,

Your friend should be a Trinitarian Christian because it is true — regardless of whether or not he finds it absurd. It is one thing for an idea or a notion to be absurd to me, and it is another for it to be absurd in itself, whereas the hardest thing in the world is to justify the change of focus from the "to me" to the "in itself."

Anyway, a Christian is someone who believes that the way to know God is Jesus Christ. No Unitarian can say that with any real conviction — at least, not without making God antecedently knowable to finite creatures apart from Jesus. Otherwise, if they grant that God is not knowable to finite creatures, then neither can Jesus Christ, as a mere finite creature, make Him known to us. There is a reason why Arius admitted that even the Logos did not know the Father — in spite of the fact that such a statement is contrary to the Scriptures, which say that "No one knows the Father except the Son" (Mt 11:27), and fundamentally undermines His status as our savior.

Knowledge of God has to come from God, just as knowledge of any object whatsoever has to proceed from the object. And the Trinity is the way the Christian Church has formulated this received knowledge of God. God is properly described in trinitarian terms, even if nothing else in all of creation can be described just as He can. The better course of action is not to become a Muslim but to set aside improper apriorism and to accept God as He has revealed Himself.

>>I haven't considered non-Incarnational Christianity. I only really started to appreciate Christianity after I studied its central doctrine and realized that it's absurd. It's absurd, but it's beautifully absurd.<<

Kierkegaard would probably like your "beautifully absurd." He too held that the Incarnation is absurd, i.e., logically contradictory, an affront to the discursive intellect.

You are assuming -- with considerable justification! -- that what is absurd cannot be true. But that is not perfectly obvious, or is it? This leads us in the direction of G. Priest's dialetheism.

There is another possibility. It could be that the Incarnation must seem absurd to us given our (fallen) cognitive architecture, but that in itself it is not absurd. Call this view mysterianism.

And then there are those who say that there really is no contradiction in the Incarnation doctrine if you make the right distinctions. Tim Pawl, Michael Gorman, et al.

My point to you is very simple: if you cannot accept Trinity and Incarnation as understood by orthodoxy, why not be a Christian unitarian? You could thereby satisfy your scruples without taking the DRASTIC step of becoming a Muslim.

Hi Bill,
That was some good ministry to a seeking soul today! (Channing etc.)

I've run across many statements such as the following, some saying explicitly that the doctrine of the Trinity is THE first thing to know about Christianity. All I can say is -wow, really? Here is one I found just now (I've broken the paragraph down and numbered the statements)

1. If any doctrine makes Christianity Christian, then surely it is the doctrine of the Trinity.
2. The three great ecumenical creeds—the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed—are all structured around our three in one God, underlying the essential importance of Trinitarian theology.
3. Augustine once commented about the Trinity that “in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.”
4. More recently, Sinclair Ferguson has reflected on “the rather obvious thought that when his disciples were about to have the world collapse in on them, our Lord spent so much time in the Upper Room speaking to them about the mystery of the Trinity.
5. If anything could underline the necessity of Trinitarianism for practical Christianity, that must surely be it!”

That paragraph is basically an 8th grade essay assignment, and is not representative of thoughtful Trins, but is also very common on the 'net.
I was going to go through each numbered sentence and destroy it, but why bother? Is it a doctrine that, in the end, makes ANY difference at all, unless one is engaged in a particular language-game?
G'day Mate

Dave

Steven Nemes,

Very good comments. I hope Cyrus considers them carefully.

1. Granted, if a doctrine seems absurd to a person, it does not follow that it is absurd (logically contradictory). But if after careful and protracted consideration a doctrine seems absurd to me, that is good evidence that it is absurd.

2. Suppose I grant that we have no natural knowledge of God, and that the only knowledge we have of God is due to God's (supernatural) revelation of himself to us. He could do that via prophets and the Scriptures. Why would he have to become man?

Don't we get a revelation of God via Moses, a mere man? Then why not also via Jesus if he is a mere man, and not the God-Man?

A unitarian could say to you: Trinity and Incarnation just make no logical sense, and all the fancy footwork engaged in by apologists for these absurdities is just sophistry. That is not my view, but it does seem to neutralize your view.

We do need to ask of a Trin: WHICH Trin theory are you espousing? Dale Tuggy has pointed out 6 or 8 different flavors of the theory, and the differences are not trivial.
Trinitarianism is not 'just' true; it has to be defended, as the 'unitarian' view is imo the default view of scripture.
But I no longer argue about this - I just will point out that, for any given Trinitarian (like I was), giving up the theories makes no real difference at all, except that the scriptures become clearer. The Father is still the Father, Jesus is still His son, and the Holy Spirit stays the energies of God just as always. We gain nothing by being Trin, and we lose nothing by being scripturally Uni.
My $.05

Dear Bill,

I incline towards the view that it's part of the meaning of truth that something isn't also false, which rules out rejecting the law of non-contradiction. I read the argument out of the Logische Untersuchungen.

I've surveyed a fair amount of the literature defending the Incarnation from arguments like the ones you give here. (I particularly like some of your later arguments.) I don't think any of it successfully does so. (I sometimes suspect that Christianity suffers from having formulated many of its core doctrines before having a worked out modal logic (where “modal logic” is used in roughly the sense we use it now, not the temporal Aristotelian one), which doesn't show up until John Duns Scotus or slightly before.)

I'm open to the mysterian option, which you've discussed before. I think there is an important question as to whether Christianity is really more absurd than Islam in light of the problem of God and accidental properties. (You argue for the tetrad's limbs well. I would have liked a bit more analysis of the nature of beliefs in support of the third limb, but it's analysis that can be done.) Is a theory with three contradictions more absurd than a theory with only one when they both contain that one? Or are they both simply absurd? (Is Russell's point about being able to derive as many contradictions as we want once we discover one relevant?) If yes, then both Islam and orthodox Christianity are equally absurd and I lose my reason for preferring Islam. But right now, either way, I would have to accept mysterianism to accept classical theism, and therefore to accept either Christianity or Islam.

However, it seems to me that once we allow mysterian moves we have to allow everybody to make them. Armstrong can happily dismiss complaints about his naturalism by saying our finite minds can't solve its problems. McGinn can happily dismiss complaints about his mental physicalism by saying that our finite minds can't solve its problems. Every position can be “rescued” by recourse to them. If acceptable, they're the end of philosophy as rigorous inquiry. I would rather avoid them if I can.

To answer your question, because I think that Unitarian Christianity escapes Christianity's contradictions by turning it into a desiccated husk, whereas I think Islam is quite beautiful and spiritually substantial. (Perhaps I've simply read too many Muslims that favour forms of Sufism.) I share some of your concerns about Islam and the fate of Western civilization and Islam and imperialism, but I'll write more about that later. I have to head out for a while.

A quick terminological note, which you picked up on, but others might not. When I say that something is absurd, I typically mean that it's logically absurd (i.e. logically contradictory, an affront to the intellect). I typically use other words to call things absurd in the other senses. I'll try to remember to add the adjective going forward in this thread, but just in case.

"part of the meaning of truth that something isn't also false" s/b "part of the meaning of [true] that something [true] isn't also false"

Cyrus,

It is important as you realize to distinguish the different senses of 'absurd.' In a separate post I count four.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. But sufis are not the ones who slaughter the innocent for the greater glory of Allah the Merciful.

>>If acceptable, they're the end of philosophy as rigorous inquiry.<<

A formidable point which needs discussing.

In Plato there is an idea that comes in Plotinus of the One Emanating the lower worlds. So you could have souls that flow from God's light but are not God. But also are not exactly separate from Him either. [That is they would not be said to have been created but having flowed from God's infinite light.] In that sense, the Trinity can make sense. You say Jesus in one with God in the sense that his soul flowed from God with no division in between.

Hi Bill,
Since I am not a philosopher, I may well be wrong in stating the following; but it seems to me that a materialist, and in particular someone who advocates for scientism, is less justified in turning to mysterianism when confronted with seemingly intractable problems, since he relies on this explanation or defense only in the last instance and at the cost of abandoning, the beliefs and methods that underlie his theory of knowledge up to that point. The theist, on the other hand, and especially one who is orthodox in his theology and classical in his philosophy, assumes that mystery exists at the center of his world view. Indeed, it is founded on mystery. He knows from the first instance that there are matters which will forever remain hidden, beginning with God’s being, so when encountering intellectually torturous and seemingly contradictory doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation, he more fittingly turns to mysterianism, which is to one degree or another intertwined with his epistemological and ontological outlook, that is, with faith founded on revelation.
Regards,
Vito

Dear Bill,

In regards to Islam and the fate of Western civilization[1], I love Western civilization. But I increasingly think that it's terminal and that all that is left is for us watch its death throes and write its biography and obituary for future generations. I'm also not so excessively attached to it (or anything temporal) that I'm willing to forego spiritual sustenance (that panem supersubstantialis you sometimes talk about) for the sake of it.

As regards Islam and imperialism, I'm not sure that Islam is essentially imperialistic. The Qur'an provides a non-imperialistic model of government in the constitution of Medina (cf. some of the points Hamza Yusuf makes here). So it's not as if by signing up and diligently adhering to the teachings of Islam I would necessarily be signing up to slaughter or support the slaughter of innocents (as you recognize in your comment about Sufism). Anyway, I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in a relationship with God (and, perhaps, in religion as a non-discursive means of seeking truth, though that requires elaboration).


1. I've assumed we have some sufficiently clear shared understanding of what Western civilization is in what follows, but I'm not sure about this and it bothers me. (It isn't Christian civilization, for both the Greeks and pre-Christian Romans were part of Western civilization and neither were Christians. Is it something like what Husserl discusses in Philosophie und die Krisis der europäischen Menschentums? Well, can't go into everything in the space of a blog comment.)

Dear Vito,

I think that materialists are at least as justified in talking about the cognitive architecture of the brain (for example) and its inability to grasp ultimate truth. Nietzsche argues to this effect in Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense. Others, like Plantinga, argue from considerations about this and evolution to the conclusion that naturalism entails even more radical skepticism.

Excellent comment, Vito.

>>The theist, on the other hand, and especially one who is orthodox in his theology and classical in his philosophy, assumes that mystery exists at the center of his world view.<<

This is an important point that I hadn't fully appreciated before.

The scientific project aims at banishing mystery, and there is nothing wrong with the project. Trouble starts when (i) science becomes scientism (the view that nat'l science is the only access to truth), and (ii) science is imagined to support materialism/naturalism (the view that reality is exhausted by the space-time system and its contents).

The ultimate worldview battle is between naturalism and theism. (Brushing with broad strokes; qualifications needed.) A crucial difference, as Vito in effect points out, is that Mystery is at the heart of theism, but cannot be at the heart of naturalism and its epistemology, scientism.

God dwelleth in light inaccessible, so that even in the Beatific Vision, his innermost essence will remain closed to us.

This needs to be teased out further.

Thanks, Vito, for the penetrating contribution.

Dear Bill,

I'll be interested to see more of where you're going with your comment to Vito if you decide to write more about it. (I might also misunderstand parts of it because broad strokes.)

The ultimate worldview battle is between naturalism and theism. (Brushing with broad strokes; qualifications needed.) A crucial difference, as Vito in effect points out, is that Mystery is at the heart of theism, but cannot be at the heart of naturalism and its epistemology, scientism.

In the meantime, I'm not sure that naturalists need to follow the epistemology of scientism. Armstrong, for instance, is a naturalist and his epistemology doesn't demand that he be able to figure out all the world's mysteries. He might be very unhappy to find out that he couldn't, but as far as I can tell his theories don't demand it.

Just as a kind of postscript to my comment to Vito: it occurs to me that even Richard Dawkins is fond of saying that the human mind evolved for “middle-sized” things and can't necessarily handle the very large or the very small. That sounds a lot like he's implicitly allowing for the possibility of mysterianism and limits to human knowledge. (I'm not sure how much importance we should give this, but it seems worth mentioning!)

Two quick thoughts. First, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection of Jesus. That doesn't end the discussion, and the reader will still have to battle his way through Trinitarianism vs. Unitarianism/Arianism, but if the case for the Resurrection is a good one, he should stay put.

Second, how does one go from "I'm not finding a logically satisfying doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, I'll become a Muslim." That's quite the stretch, and what is gained in theoretical simplicity is lost with loan shark levels of interest when it comes to historical and moral difficulties. Let me strongly recommend a few weeks perusing David Wood's work, especially his Acts 17 Apologetics channel on YouTube.

A P.S. regarding the Resurrection: here's a free version (http://www.lydiamcgrew.com/Resurrectionarticlesinglefile.pdf) of Tim & Lydia McGrew's excellent article on the topic. (The finished version was published in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.)

Cyrus wrote: Judaism "seems limp and impotent to me."

At least it's not false and idolatrous. For a full defense of the Noachide position: https://www.reddit.com/r/Noachide/wiki/faq

This was a recent debate between a Noachide and several Catholics. Which side was "impotent"? Who went into Chuck Norris Mode:

https://noachideblog.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/a-conversation-between-catholics-and-a-noachide.pdf

Cyrus,

I plan to expatiate further on Vito's suggestion if I have time tomorrow, and also respond to your comments on Islam.

Meanwhile, you should respond to Dennis above.

And now, to bed.

Dear Dennis,

Thanks for the comments.

Second, how does one go from "I'm not finding a logically satisfying doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, I'll become a Muslim." That's quite the stretch, and what is gained in theoretical simplicity is lost with loan shark levels of interest when it comes to historical and moral difficulties. Let me strongly recommend a few weeks perusing David Wood's work, especially his Acts 17 Apologetics channel on YouTube.

I'm a bit confused as to why you think I went straight from “I'm not finding a logically satisfying doctrine of the Trinity” to “I'll become a Muslim”. (i) I haven't been focusing on the Trinity. I've been focusing on the Chalcedonian formulation of the Incarnation. (ii) It's not just that I can't find a logically satisfying orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation (as if there might be one out there). It's that the orthodox formulation of the doctrine is incoherent. (iii) I haven't moved straight from “The orthodox formulation of the Incarnation is incoherent” to “I'll become a Muslim” (as a perusal of my comments above should at least suggest).

First, Christianity stands or falls with the Resurrection of Jesus. That doesn't end the discussion, and the reader will still have to battle his way through Trinitarianism vs. Unitarianism/Arianism, but if the case for the Resurrection is a good one, he should stay put.

The arguments for the falsehood of orthodox Christianity are deductive (i.e. one can infer them directly from the doctrines of orthodox Christianity and a couple other things). The argument for God raising Jesus from the dead is abductive. In other words, the evidence for the falsehood of orthodox Christianity is more reliable than the evidence for God raising Jesus from the dead. Hence, if God raising Jesus from the dead entails orthodox Christianity, I have good grounds for rejecting the argument for God raising Jesus from the dead.

But God raising Jesus from the dead doesn't entail orthodox Christianity. For it's possible that Christianity is false and that God raised Jesus, the man, from the dead.

P.S. Here, incidentally, is what the Qur'an has to say about the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. So eye-witness evidence and actions following from it, though generally significant, are alas consistent with Islam. (Other arguments about what these ayahs might entail, or suggest about God, are other arguments.)

If he looks at the historical evidence, or lack of, for Islam, Mohammad and the Quran, we wouldn't become a Muslim.

For those wondering, the later part of my email to Bill questions whether Islam, with its conception of heaven as rather like a heightened version of earth and (as far as I can tell) lack of anything like the Incarnation, Crucifixion, or beatific vision, truly offers saving from our earthly predicament, which seems essential rather than merely accidental to earthly existence.

I scowled at non-Incarnational Christianity (in part) for similar reasons. Christianity without God suffering on the cross seems to me like a lot of exaggeration and hullabaloo.

I also suggested that more mystical Muslim traditions might have more Platonic answers to our plight, less physicalistic conceptions of heaven, or something like the beatific vision, to Bill.

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