Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Write-Up: Mark----Traditions in Conflict

Theodore J. Weeden.  Mark—-Traditions in Conflict.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

I decided to read this book when I saw that it was mentioned in a book that Richard Bauckham edited, The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences.  The author who mentioned Weeden’s book disagreed with its thesis, but I thought that Weeden’s book might be interesting.   I am interested in the diversity within the Bible and new ways of looking at issues.

Essentially, Weeden argues that Mark was responding to people who were like the super-apostles in II Corinthians.  These people focused on signs and wonders: they performed them themselves, and they also highlighted that Jesus performed them as a divine man.  They believed that they were connected in some manner with the apostles, perhaps as heirs to the apostles’ miracle-working ministry.  They maintained that spiritual knowledge was hidden from the masses and was reserved for a spiritual elite.  They also held that Jesus himself was in their presence, and that they were so united with Jesus that they themselves could be identified with him, on some level.

According to Weeden, Mark drew from these people’s traditions about Jesus in writing his own Gospel, but he did so as a way to refute them.  Rather than focusing on signs and wonders, Mark emphasized the importance of suffering discipleship, which would speak to his historical context, a time when believers in Jesus were suffering.  Mark depicted Jesus backing away from either performing miracles or highlighting them.  Because Mark’s opponents stressed the apostles, Mark presented the disciples as people who simply did not understand Jesus’ mission.  In the Gospel of Mark, they stumble over Jesus’ miracles, and Peter gets rebuked by Jesus because Peter simply does not grasp that Jesus will suffer and die.  There are also no post-resurrection appearances by Jesus to the disciples in the Gospel of Mark: they miss the boat. Whereas Mark’s opponents believed in a secret spiritual knowledge, and this view is evident in Jesus’ telling of parables in the Gospel of Mark to obscure knowledge for anyone other than Jesus’ disciples, Mark contended that Jesus was public about his Messianic identity as Son of Man, and Mark also maintained that Jesus was inclusive, even towards those who were doing great works in his name yet were not part of his circle of disciples.  While Mark’s opponents said that the risen Christ was in their midst and identified themselves with Christ, on some level, Mark in Mark 13 attempted to refute these claims.  The people who come in Christ’s name, claim to be Christ, and perform signs and wonders are Mark’s opponents, Weeden argues.  Mark rejects the idea that Jesus is with the Christian community, for Mark is clear that the Spirit is with the Christians, and the Spirit is not Jesus.  Mark in Mark 13 warns the disciples against following those who believe that Jesus is here or there, and Weeden thinks that Mark here is arguing against his opponents’ view that Christ is in their midst.  For Mark, according to Weeden, Jesus will be with Christians after the parousia, not before then.  Until that time, the bridegroom will be away from the Christians.

A question that I had in reading this book was whether Mark 16:7 undermined Weeden’s thesis.  There, a young man at the empty tomb instructs the women to tell the disciples, and Peter, that Jesus is going before them into Galilee.  Does that not undermine the idea that Jesus was spurning the disciples by not giving them any post-resurrection appearances?  No, according to Weeden.  Weeden agrees with scholars who argue that Mark 16:7 concerns the parousia, not post-resurrection appearances.  Weeden notes that the terminology used is the terminology that is usually employed in reference to the parousia.

Do I agree with Weeden’s thesis?  There may be something to it.  I myself have thought that the Messianic secret in the Gospel of Mark contrasts with Jesus’ public proclamation of his mission in the self-same Gospel.  I have also been open to the possibility that the people who come in Christ’s name in Mark 13 and deceive many are Christians rather than the Messianic pretenders Josephus talks about, since they do come in Christ’s name.

But I still have questions.  First of all, while Weeden is clear that Mark believed in an imminent parousia, did Mark envision the parousia occurring during the lifetime of Peter?  The young man in Mark 16:7, after all, instructs the women to tell Peter that Jesus goes before them into Galilee.  If so, how would that make sense to Mark’s community, which may have lived after Peter’s death (though I cannot be too dogmatic about this, for Peter may have lived a long time)?  Was Peter supposed to pass on the tradition that Jesus’s parousia would be in Galilee?  Second, why would Mark depict Jesus’ disciples as clueless about Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, when Weeden’s argument is that Mark’s opponents emphasized Jesus’ miracles?  Was the point here that Jesus’ disciples were clueless, even on what people believed them to be experts on?  Third, why would Mark emphasize the importance of suffering discipleship?  Why did Mark believe that suffering was important?  Did he think that suffering served some positive end?

Thought-provoking book!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Old Self, New Self, Christ Within

At church this morning, the pastor was talking about a person who was born again.  This person confessed that there was still darkness within him, but he said that things are different for him now, and that this is not due to himself, but rather to Christ.

This story stood out to me because I was thinking yesterday about the darkness that is inside of me.  There are a variety of models of the atonement.  One is the model of penal substitution, which holds that Christ in dying paid the penalty for sin on our behalf, and we are saved when we trust in that.  Another model is the death and resurrection model, in which we die and rise with Christ.  This model appears in Romans 6, and the idea is that our old self dies with Christ, and a new self rises with Christ.  The old self is carnal and yielded to sin, whereas the new self is yielded to righteousness.  And yet, many note, even new selves struggle with sin.  But a number of Christians would come back and say that sin does not dominate within the new self.  Yes, sin and carnality are there, in the same way that a rotting corpse can still have a negative impact even though it is dead.  But they are not dominant.

My problem is that so much of me is carnality—-sin, selfishness, cold-heartedness, hatred, etc.  This has been the case when my beliefs have been right-wing evangelical, and also when they have strayed from that.  I tend to like the substitutionary model of the atonement because it treats me as a passive party: I am inadequate, and yet Jesus—-who is stronger than I am—-does things on my behalf, resulting in my salvation.  I have a hard time seeing my old self as dead and my new self as alive, however, because my “old self” appears to me to be alive and active.

Do I believe that Christ is working within me, producing the fruit of good attitudes and good deeds?  Well, I depend on God, let me tell you that!  I pray to him, for I realize that I need help to live a good life—-and, even here, I do not set the bar for a “good life” unrealistically high.  But there have been many times when I have felt as if I was carrying the burden of living a good life all by myself.

I’m turning off the comments because this post was uncomfortable for me to write, and I am not interested in reading Christian attempts to prey on my vulnerability.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

I Chronicles 3

I have two items for my blog post today about I Chronicles 3:

1.  V 3 states that David had Ithream “by Eglah his wife” (KJV).  This stood out to me because the chapter mentions other women by whom David had children, yet Eglah is the only woman who is called his wife.  Rashi, drawing from the Midrash, says that Eglah is David’s wife Michal.  “Eglah” is the Hebrew word for “heifer.”  Why would Michal be called a heifer, according to Rashi and his source?  One explanation is that Michal made a sound like a heifer when she gave birth to Ithream, but another is that “Eglah” was a term of endearment.  Samson in Judges 14:18, after all, called the woman he was marrying his heifer.  According to Rashi and his source, Michal had a special place in David’s heart, so David called her his “Eglah,” and the text specifies that she was his wife.

2.  V 24 mentions Anani, who was descended from the Davidic King Jeconiah of Judah.  He appears to be the last descendant of David who is mentioned in the genealogy.  According to Roddy Braun in his Word Bible Commentary about I Chronicles, there was an Aramaic letter dated to 407 B.C.E. that mentions an Anani, and Braun believes it is plausible that this is the same Anani as the one mentioned in I Chronicles 3:24.  That may give us an indication as to the date of I Chronicles.

Interestingly, however, the Targum and other Jewish interpreters affirm that Anani is the coming Messiah.  “Anan” is a word for “cloud,” and Daniel 7:13 affirms that the Son of Man will come in the clouds of heaven.  Apparently, there were Jewish interpreters who regarded the Danielic Son of Man as the Messiah, for they said that Anani was the coming Messiah, and that his very name related to what Daniel 7:13 said about the Son of Man.  I draw my information here from the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary.

How could Anani be the coming Messiah, when he was a figure in the past?  The Artscroll mentions that there were seven generations between Jeconiah and Anani, but it also mentions the view that the “seven” in v 24 relates to the seven eyes of God that roam throughout the earth in Zechariah 4:10, a passage that the Artscroll is taking as Messianic.  The seven in I Chronicles 3:24 appears to be the number of sons of Elioenai.  Could the Jewish interpreters who regarded Anani as the Messiah be interpreting the “sons” of Elioenai loosely: that, yes, some of them could be sons, but that Anani is actually a descendant, the Messiah, who will come in the future?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Mary, and the Weakness of Theodicy

For its Bible study, my church is going through The Easter Experience: What If What Happened Then Changes Everything Now?  Last night, we did Session 4, “my life has a plan”.  The lesson was about how life does not always turn out as we expected: we may have expected a smooth road, but instead we encounter trials and difficulties.  The DVD part of the study focused on Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Did she seriously expect for things to turn out as they did for Jesus, for Jesus to be mocked, scourged, and crucified?

I have two items.

1.  All of the DVD parts of the lessons that we have watched thus far have been emotionally gut-wrenching, but last night’s session was the first that made me cry.  The DVD cut between Mary when she was a happy expectant mother with high hopes for her child, to Mary in the crowd as Pilate presents a scarred Jesus to the audience: the latter Mary had a smudge on her face, as well as a baffled expression.

I reacted similarly when I first saw The Passion of the Christ.  So much of the film, to be honest, did not have much of an impact on me.  I thought that the violence portrayed against Jesus was gratuitous and over-the-top.  But, when Jesus fell and his mother ran up to comfort him, I was moved to tears.

2.  We were talking about suffering, and the pastor read to us from the teacher’s manual.  What he read was that we may think that a good God should act in such-and-such a way, but we are not qualified to make that determination, for we are not good, and we are not God.

I had problems with that statement.  I can see the point that God may work good out of evil or have a good purpose for evil in ways that we cannot see from our limited perspective.  But I question the notion that we are so sinful that we cannot make determinations about what is good and what is bad for people.  Christianity asks us to make those determinations in exhorting us to live a moral life, and part of that moral life is recognizing that we should not do harm to others, but instead should help them.  Jesus did that when he healed people.  He did not just sit back and say that God had some purpose for evil, and that the evil was actually good in disguise that God was using to benefit somehow the blind, the lame, and the sick.  No, being blind is not good, and so Jesus healed people of their blindness.

Theodicies are tough.  A lot of the time, they strike me as attempts to justify, downplay, or trivialize evil.  I also don’t think that Christians should rush to present the usual glib theodicies or attempts to explain why God allows evil.  They should take the time to recognize evil for what it is, as evil.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

On Not Dismissing Cliches about Church

Not long ago, I was reading a post that was critical of the institutional church.  Someone was saying that she felt alienated and alone when attending church.  A pro-church commenter then rushed in, saying that we should focus more on what we give rather than what we get in church: that we should be proactive in reaching out to lonely people rather than expecting for others to reach out to us.  An anti-church commenter then dismissed that, saying that he was told that all his life by people who could not have cared less about him.

What that pro-church commenter said was long a turn-off to me, for the simple reason that I did not know how to reach out to others.  And, in some settings, you may get funny looks if you try to reach out to somebody else.  This may be the case at a megachurch, where many people do not know one another.  In addition, I do believe that there is such a thing as beating a dead horse.  If you are at a church, you want to be accepted as part of the community, and people at that church will not accept you, even if you do give and serve, then why stay?  Try to find a place that is more welcoming!

At the same time, I do not thoroughly dismiss what the pro-church commenter was saying—-as a sermon to myself, not necessarily to anyone else.  I know that I have often been concerned about receiving—-are others reaching out to me?  I have been blessed when I have had opportunities in churches to reach out to others: to help them to feel less alone when they go to a church.  In those cases, I can be part of the solution.  There is something to be said for being outwardly focused, rather than inwardly focused.

I know that many of us are tired of glib, routine, cliche “answers” by Christians, for these “answers” appear insensitive and dismissive of our pain.  But I believe that I should not allow my cynicism to dismiss those answers thoroughly.  Perhaps they have something to teach me.  Whether they can teach someone else, well, that is for that person to decide!

Book Write-Up: The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting, by Irina Levinskaya

Irina Levinskaya.  The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, Volume 5: The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting.  Grand Rapids, William B.Eerdmans/Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1996.

This book is the fifth volume of a series about the historical context of the Book of Acts.  Russian scholar Irina Levinskaya is the author of this particular volume.  Levinskaya narrates in her preface that she had an interest in the New Testament as a student of the classics at St. Petersburg University, but one of her professors discouraged her from that particular field of study.  Levinskaya speculates that this was because the professor “had spent ten years of his life in one of Stalin’s camps and ten years in exile”, and thus he was “especially careful” in what he recommended to his students, out of concern for their well-being (page vii).  In the course of her studies, Levinskaya came across the cult of the Most High God in the ancient Bosporan Kingdom in Crimea and the Taman peninsula.  Because that cult was considered pagan, she felt free to study it under Communist auspices, which had no problem with paganism.  She concluded, however, that this cult was influenced by Judaism and appeared similar to the phenomenon of the God-fearers in the Book of Acts: the God-fearers were Gentiles who did not fully convert to Judaism yet worshiped the God of Israel.  Her interest in the Book of Acts was kindled!

Levinskaya participates in scholarly discussions about ancient Jewish proselytism and the God-fearers.  On the issue of Jewish proselytism, she sides with Martin Goodman’s view that the Jews in the first century C.E. welcomed converts but lacked an active missionary program, which would explain why the Book of Acts does not mention it.  What about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:15 that the scribes and Pharisees travel by sea and land in search of converts?  Does that not demonstrate that Jews had an active missionary program in the first century C.E.?  According to Levinskaya, it does not.  She believes that Matthew 23:15 was saying that the Pharisees were trying to convert other Jews to Pharisaism, not Gentiles to Judaism.  Levinskaya argues that the Greek term proselutos can have a broader meaning than a Gentile convert to Judaism and can mean someone coming to something from something else (since proselutos is from the Greek word proserchomai, to come to).  Christians used the term to refer to converts to Christianity, and Acts 13:43 contains the odd statement that God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas.  The reason that this statement in Acts 13:43 is odd is that God-fearers and proselytes are supposed to be different: God-fearers worship God without circumcision or a formal conversion to Judaism, whereas proselytes are Gentiles who have converted to Judaism.  How can one be a God-fearer and a proselyte at the same time, in the Book of Acts?  According to Levinskaya, the proselytes in Acts 13:43 are not Gentile converts to Judaism, but rather they are Gentile God-fearers who are interested in coming to Christianity.

On the issue of the God-fearers, there is scholarly debate about whether there were such people in antiquity.  Some maintain that they were a literary device in Acts designed to set the stage for the Gentiles coming to Christianity.  There are inscriptions that use labels that several scholars believe pertain to God-fearers, but detractors argue that these labels may refer to especially pious Jews, not Gentiles who worship the God of Israel.  Levinskaya sides with the view that God-fearers actually existed in antiquity.  On page 81, she notes a second century C.E. altar in Pamphylia, which contains the inscription “For the truthful and not-handmade god (in fulfillment of) a vow” (in whatever translation Levinskaya is using).  She does not believe that the altar is Jewish or Christian because it is an altar: her point here may be that Jews and Christians ordinarily did not set up altars.  And she does not believe that the altar is pagan because its vocabulary is not what Gentiles ordinarily used.  Her belief is that this altar to the “not-handmade god” is that of God-fearers, Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel.  Overall, she argues that the cult of the Most High God in antiquity was a God-fearing phenomenon.  While Zeus was called most high, the cult that she is discussing does not mention Zeus, plus it differs from the Zeus cult.

Levinskaya discusses other issues as well, such as the question of whether synagogues were independent of each other or part of a single group.  She seems to side with the former.

This is an informative book.  Personally, I do not rule out that Jews may have had an active missionary enterprise in the first century C.E., on account of various pieces of ancient evidence (i.e., Josephus).  I am also not entirely convinced by Levinskaya’s argument that proselutos in Matthew 23:15 meant converts to Pharisaism, for it so often has the technical meaning of conversion to Judaism, and I believe that the Christians later adopted that term to refer to converts to their own sect.  On the topic of the God-fearers, I am open to their historical existence, and I find Levinskaya’s discussion of altars and cults to the Most High God to be interesting and important.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Highlander's Last Song, by George MacDonald

George MacDonald.  The Highlander’s Last Song.  Michael R. Phillips, ed.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1986.

George MacDonald was a nineteenth century Scottish preacher, whose works had a profound influence on C.S. Lewis.  MacDonald wrote fictional books, and Michael Phillips has graciously put a number of them into modern English.

MacDonald’s theological views are usually quite overt in his fictional works.  MacDonald rejected penal substitution, the idea the Christ paid the penalty for people’s sins on the cross.  MacDonald also leaned towards Christian universalism, the idea that sinners in hell will be purged of their sins and will eventually experience salvation.  MacDonald’s works focus on sinners becoming changed and purged of their sins, trusting in Christ, and following Christ’s teachings, especially the command to love one’s enemies and service to others.  Overall, I would characterize MacDonald’s God as loving, yet tough.

The Highlander’s Last Song is set in MacDonald’s country, Scotland.  A prominent character is Alister, who is the head of the Macruadh clan.  His brother, Ian, has returned from serving the Czar in Russia, and my impression is that Ian exemplifies George MacDonald’s concept of spiritual maturity, for Ian is full of wisdom and expresses MacDonald’s sentiments about religion and the spiritual life.  The mother of Alister and Ian is more of a traditional type of Christian, one who wants for people to accept Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf in order to go to heaven, and she and Ian debate about religion, yet they are still close and love each other.  There is Peregrine Palmer, a boorish Englishman, who has bought property in Scotland and has moved there with his family.  Peregrine’s two daughters, Mercy and Christina, are rather shallow at first, but their relationship with Ian and Alister and life-threatening experiences manage to deepen them and open them up to the divine.  There are other characters as well: a cranky (yet loveable) old lady who is part of the Macruadh clan, the deaf-mute Hector of the Stags, and Hector’s son, the childlike Rob of the Angels, who entrances people with his stories.

The great clash occurs later in the book, when Peregrine Palmer tries to get the clan-families off of his newly bought land so that he can create a place to hunt deer.

The Highlander’s Last Song has a magical quality to it, as do many of MacDonald’s works, and MacDonald’s spiritual commentary only adds to the story.  My favorite part of the book is when the cranky old lady prays for Alister.  MacDonald states on page 35: “And if there was a good deal of superstition mingled with her prayer, the main ingredient was genuine—-the love prompting it.  If God heard only perfect prayers, how could he be the prayer-hearing God?”

One impression that I have, however, is that MacDonald depicts the spiritually mature characters as virtually perfect.  This seems to be the case with Ian, who was imperfect in the book’s flashbacks, but who strikes me as perfect in the narrative’s present.  Alister is spiritually mature, too, but MacDonald states that Alister is looking to money for security and needs to be purged of that.  Moreover, while MacDonald appears to disagree with Ian and Alister on whether people should drink alcohol (MacDonald is open to it, whereas Ian and Alister are opposed), Ian still fits MacDonald’s spiritual standards in that he has inner peace and loves others, including his enemies, and Alister moves in that direction.

That makes me wonder: Do righteous, spiritually-mature people suffer, according to MacDonald, or are they so in touch with God that they greet every situation and person with inner-peace and love?  MacDonald in The Highlander’s Last Song does not stress Christ’s sufferings.  Could that be relevant to my question?  MacDonald is still clear that people can tell God what is hurting them, and his spiritually mature characters assure the victimized that they can trust that God will justly judge their oppressors.  Yet, there is an almost zen-like quality to his spiritually mature characters.

One scene that comes to my mind is when the cranky old lady is being thrown out of her house, and Alister exhorts her to trust in God and to love her enemies.  She proceeds to inflict biblical woes at those who are tossing her stuff out, as she quotes biblical passages about God’s wrath and God’s fierce opposition to injustice!  Is MacDonald’s point here that God is both loving and just?

Good book!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Book Write-Up: Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Nabeel Qureshi.  Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

Nabeel Qureshi was raised in a warm and loving Ahmadi Muslim home, which lived in the United States and Scotland.  But he became an evangelical Christian and a Christian apologist as an adult.  His book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, is about how that happened, and how his family responded.

I learned things about Islam from this book that I did not know before.  For example, what exactly is Ahmadi Islam, and how is it different from the prominent Sunni and Shiite branches?  According to Qureshi, Ahmadi Islam is controversial within Islam because it maintains that there was a prophet of God after Muhammad, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who claimed to be all of the prophets religions are awaiting to return (i.e., Jesus, Elijah, etc.).  Moreover, while a number of Muslims hold that later revelations to Muhammad nullified earlier revelations to him, Ahmadi Islam accepts all of the revelations in the Koran as authoritative, seeking to harmonize them when they appear to disagree.  Notwithstanding these differences, Ahmadi Islam overlaps with the rest of Islam on a number of beliefs and practices: that there is one God and Muhammad is God’s prophet, Ramadan, making a pilgrimage to Mecca, etc.  I should also note that Ahmadi Islam is one of the peaceful branches of Islam.  It sees Muhammad’s wars as defensive rather than offensive, and it praises Muhammad as a moral exemplar, who showed mercy to the Meccans after they had attacked him and his people.

Nabeel Qureshi talks about his Muslim family’s experiences of the supernatural through dreams and answered prayer, as well as his loneliness and alienation as a young Pakistani in the Western world.  Nabeel also tells the story of his interactions as a boy with a Christian girl named Betsy, and how he and his father attended a play at Betsy’s church that presented the evangelical Christian salvation message (i.e., those who accept Jesus as their Savior go to heaven, while those who reject Jesus go to hell).  Nabeel Qureshi’s father highlighted what he liked and disliked about the play, and he also encouraged his son to interact with people about religion in order to bring them to Islam.

Nabeel did not have any Christian friends with whom he shared his life until he met David, a fellow college student.  Nabeel and David would discuss religion, and David introduced Nabeel to Christian apologists Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, who presented to Nabeel historical arguments that Jesus rose from the dead.  Nabeel also read books, and he became convinced that Jesus claimed to be God, even in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark.  What’s more, Nabeel became more open to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity after hearing a university lecture about atoms!  Nabeel went on to research his own religion, Islam, and he learned from the hadith (which contains traditions about Muhammad) that the composition and transmission of the Koran were not as neat and tidy as he once thought, and that Muhammad was not the saint that he previously believed.  Nabeel also concluded that the Koran contains scientific errors.  Nabeel was not satisfied with the answers that he heard and read from Islamic leaders and apologists, and, after receiving a series of dreams (and discussing their symbolism with his mother), he concluded that he needed to become a Christian.  Yet, he was afraid that doing so would cut him off from his family.

The book is a delightful and enjoyable read, even though there is also a solemnity to it, since Nabeel gave up so much to become a Christian.  I think that the book is also important because it can counter Islamophobia, for Nabeel distinguishes among Muslims, and he also narrates the fear that his family experienced after 9/11.

In terms of any criticisms of the book, I have four.  First of all, there were times when I was not entirely sure what Nabeel as a Muslim believed.  Did he think that the Gospels in the New Testament were authoritative, for example, or did he not?  I got both from the book.  Second, I believe that some of the problems that Nabeel had with the Koran and hadith are arguably problems that the Bible has, as well: God’s people marrying prisoners-of-war, scientific inaccuracies, violence, etc.   Nabeel explains in an endnote why he does not defend the Bible and instead chooses to focus on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and claim to be God, but, considering the importance of the Bible within evangelical Christianity, he should have touched on the troublesome passages in the Bible.  Third, while I appreciated the Christian apologists’ historical-critical arguments for their position, I did not care for how David in the book failed to interact with Bart Ehrman’s scholarship, as he instead highlighted that Ehrman is not a Christian.  Fourth, while I thought that Nabeel arrived at his conclusion that Jesus claimed to be divine through sound historical methodology and argumentation, my impression was that he left certain questions unanswered.  Back when he was a Muslim and was debating Betsy, he noted that Jesus within the Gospels was unable to do miracles in certain places, that Jesus depended on his Father in doing miracles, that Jesus (unlike his Father) did not know the time of his own return, and that Jesus appeared to distinguish himself from God in his conversation with the rich young ruler, all as arguments that Jesus was not God and did not claim to be God.  In my opinion, Nabeel in the book should have come back to those arguments after concluding that Jesus was divine, to see what he made of them.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book through the BookLook Bloggers ( book review bloggers program.  The program does not require for my review to be positive, and my review reflects my honest reaction to the book.

Book Write-Up: How to Write a Lot, by Paul J. Silvia

Paul J. Silvia.  How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007.

I decided to read this book because I have been wanting to do more academic writing, academic writing that can get published and that I can put on a CV.  As I read books and articles, I wonder how their authors do what they do.  They site so many books and articles.  Have they read all of those?  If so, how did they find the time?

Paul J. Silvia mainly discusses academic writing in the field of psychology, but I think that many of his insights can be applied to aspiring writers in other fields of study.  (Mine pertains to the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.)  Come to think of it, some of his thoughts may even be applicable to people who want to write non-academic material, such as fiction or articles, for publication.

What Silvia returns to over and over again is the importance of having a set writing time during the week, and sticking with that.  He recommends that writers devote at least four hours a week to writing, and they can divide up that time any way they wish.  And “writing” does not just mean writing the words of the manuscript: it can also include research, setting writing goals, organizing footnotes, revising an article, and reading books about how to improve one’s writing.  Silvia tells his colleagues reading the book that their article will most likely be rejected, since most submitted articles in psychology are.  They may even read harsh peer reviews about their article.   (Submitted articles are generally given to reviewers to get their feedback about whether or not the article should be accepted for publication, and the authors of the submitted articles usually get to read those reviews.)  Still, rain or shine, success or failure, motivated or not, one should keep at that writing schedule, according to Silvia!

This, in my opinion, was the most motivational aspect of Silvia’s book.  The day after I finished it, I got up early and devoted an hour to one of my writing projects.  I did the same the morning after that.

What if one has writer’s block?  What if one wants to write, but does not know what to write about?  I think that Silvia assumes that most of his colleagues reading this book already have done a lot of research, but they are stalling at the writing part.  They have something to write about, but they are reluctant to sit down and write, due to the challenges of the writing process itself, and also their feeling that they lack the time to write.  Silvia also believes that sticking with the writing schedule itself can generate ideas.  I thought that Silvia could have gone into more detail about how one can find topics for one’s writing.

Silvia also discusses the importance of outlines, how being in a writing group can keep authors accountable to their goals, keys to effective prose, how to organize a psychological research paper, steps to take in resubmitting an article, and how to write a book.  Silvia also refers to other books about writing that his readers may find useful.

Excellent book!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Write-Up: Hitler's Cross, by Erwin W. Lutzer

Erwin W. Lutzer.  Hitler’s Cross: How the Cross Was Used to Promote the Nazi Agenda.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for my review copy of this book.  See here for Moody’s page about it.

Lutzer makes a variety of points in this book.  He goes into the many people and beliefs that he believes influenced either Adolf Hitler or the German people who accepted Hitler, including (but not limited to) occultism, paganism, theological liberalism, Hinduism, and anti-Judaism within Christianity.  He profiles Christians who resisted Hitler, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, as well as Germans who helped Jews, in a time when many Germans (even Christians) were idolizing Hitler as the savior of their nation, one who had restored Germany’s pride while improving its economic condition.  While Lutzer maintains that Hitler was demonically-influenced, faults the church for not doing enough to stand against Hitler, and argues against the anti-Jewish idea that the Jews should be blamed for Christ’s crucifixion (Lutzer states that all of humanity is to blame), he still believes that Hitler played some role in God’s plan, as he notes the many times that Hitler dodged literal and figurative bullets as examples of possible divine providence.  Lutzer also holds that there are lessons for today in the historical events that he discusses.  In many cases, these “lessons” reflect a Christian conservative political agenda: Christianity in public school, being against judicial activism, and a pro-life stance on abortion.  But there are times when Lutzer deviates from the priorities of a Christian conservative agenda, as when he mentions compassion for the poor and the need to stand against racism, criticizes the marriage between Christianity and nationalism, and affirms that politics alone is not sufficient to help America.

Not everyone will agree with all of Lutzer’s theological, historical, and political arguments.  I did not, but I still found the book to be worth reading.  Most importantly, the book challenged me spiritually.  Many Germans took the easier, softer way when it came to their response to Hitler, in that they went with the flow or supported Hitler out of their pride as Germans or their desire to preserve their economic security.  As Lutzer argues, such a stance contradicts the cross of Christ, which promotes humility and love rather than pride and hate.  This book can influence us to ask: Are there areas in which we compromise principles in pursuit of an easier, softer, more secure way?

I also appreciated Lutzer’s references to discussions that he has had with people, especially Jews.  That added an element of humanity and thoughtfulness to this book.

In terms of criticisms that I have, I think that Lutzer should have documented more of his claims, and that, in more endnotes, he should have cited not only the secondary source, but also the primary source that the secondary source was quoting.  Still, Lutzer referred to books and authors that one can read if one wants to know more.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Did Jesus Let His Light Shine in His Final Hours?

At church, I have been one of the readers for the Sundays of Lent.  Today, one of my lines to read was: “If we were in [Jesus'] place, knowing death awaited us soon, would we still reflect our light?”

I remember watching on television a video sermon that was delivered by Dr. Desmond Ford.  Ford referred to thinkers who said that there were other famous historical figures who handled their impending deaths much more bravely than Jesus did.  Was not Jesus afraid of death at the Garden of Gethsemane?  And did not Jesus on the cross ask God why God had forsaken him?

Dr. Ford’s response was that Jesus was not just experiencing death; rather, he was experiencing the second death, the death for the wicked in Revelation 20:14.  Other Christians would add that Jesus on the cross was bearing the weight of people’s sins, and that he was experiencing alienation from God.

That might be.  It is interesting to me that Jesus was still suffering emotional anguish, when there are some Christians who might say that such anguish indicates a lack of faith, that we should be composed because of our trust in God.  I am reading a book by George MacDonald, The Highlander’s Last Song, and one of that book’s protagonists is one who is not afraid of death, for he realizes that he is in the arms of God.  The book seems to herald him as some sort of spiritual exemplar.  But Jesus experienced emotional anguish.  We may like to regard Jesus as perfect, but perhaps his perfection does not accord with our understanding of perfection.

Jesus still did let his light shine in his final hours, though.  Jesus thought of others and honored God when he was arrested and when he was dying, according to the Gospels.  He healed the ear of the high priest’s slave.  With composure, he told Pilate that Pilate would have no power were it not for God.  On the cross, Jesus received a criminal into his kingdom.  He arranged for the disciple he loved to take care of his mother.  He was vulnerable, yet he knew who he was and what his mission was.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

I Chronicles 2

For my weekly quiet time, I studied I Chronicles 2.  Here are some items.

1.  I Chronicles 2 mentions intermarriages between Israelites and Gentiles.  This is why there are scholars who dispute that Ezra wrote the I Chronicles, since Ezra seemed to be so opposed to intermarriage.  Rabbinic Judaism tended to have a problem with the intermarriages in I Chronicles, so rabbis interpreted many of the Gentile spouses as proselytes to Judaism.  When they become proselytes, they are now Jews, and thus they can marry Israelites.

2.  I Chronicles 2 mentions people who did not have children.  Matthew Henry in addressing this launched into a mini-sermon about divine providence and how even people without children can be beloved of God: Isaiah 56, after all, praises the eunuchs who hold fast to God’s covenant.  I do not know what I Chronicles thinks about those who did not have children: whether it has Matthew Henry’s attitude, or views those without children as being somehow cursed by God, or punished for some sin.  There was one person, Sheshan, who was said to have no sons, yet a son is mentioned (vv 31, 34).  Artscroll says that the son could have died, or he could have been born after the events of vv 34-35.

3.  There is debate about whether the Caleb of I Chronicles 2:18 is the Caleb of the Book of Numbers and the Book of Joshua.  Both have a daughter named Achsah, but they have different fathers, and the Caleb of I Chronicles 2:18 is neatly situated within the genealogy of Judah.  The United Church of God’s commentary quotes Henri Roussier, who said that what is going on is that the Caleb of Numbers and Joshua—-a non-Israelite—-is being incorporated into the genealogy of Israel in I Chronicles 2:18.  A non-Israelite is being reckoned as an Israelite!

4.  On the topic of Caleb, Roddy Braun in the Word Biblical Commentary says that “The fact that Caleb and others traditionally associated with the extreme south of Judah are here removed to the center of the tribe’s traditional territory may reflect some post-exilic interests, in which the misfortune of the exile has led to a resettlement and continued diffusion of earlier more independent and farther removed peoples” (page 46).  This tells me that I Chronicles is telling the past in light of its present: rather than going with what the Book of Joshua says about the place of Caleb’s territory, it is placing Caleb’s territory in a place that fits post-exilic realities.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"My Pain Is Understood"

For its Bible study, my church is going through The Easter Experience: What If What Happened Then Changes Everything Now?  Last night, we did Lesson 3, “My Pain Is Understood.”  The point of the lesson was that Jesus understands whatever pain we are going through, since Jesus himself went through pain: emotional, physical, and relational.

There were three theological issues that came to my mind, two of which were in response to the group’s discussion.

1.  I was wondering what exactly the Book of Hebrews’ Christology is.  In Hebrews 1:2, the author of Hebrews affirms that God made the universe through God’s son.  Yet, vv 3b-4 say (in the NIV): “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.  So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.”  But was not the Son of God superior to the angels before his incarnation and ascension back to heaven, according to Hebrews, since he played a role in creation?  Did Jesus gain some status or superiority after his resurrection that was not his before?  I guess that the best I can come up with in response to this question is that Hebrews 2:9 says that Jesus was made lower than the angels, so the author of Hebrews may have believed that the Son of God resumed his superiority to the angels after his death, resurrection, and ascension.  I wonder if there is a deeper explanation, though.

2.  The pastor read to us from the teacher’s version of our booklet, and it was saying that God prior to Jesus’ incarnation did not suffer.  Now, since Jesus came and suffered, there is a part of the Godhead that understands human suffering.  I was not convinced that God prior to the incarnation did not suffer.  It seems to me, from reading the Hebrew Bible, that God in the Hebrew Bible suffered emotionally and relationally, for God was grieved at what human beings did.  I see no reason to take that as less than literal.  But, from a Christian point-of-view, I agree that Jesus’ incarnation was the first time that God suffered physically.

3.  One of the questions in our booklet asked us if we truly believe that Jesus suffered the same sorts of sufferings that we do, and thus we can trust that he understands our suffering.  The pastor read from the teacher’s version, and it said that Jesus did not suffer every single kind of suffering that is out there—-for example, he never experienced the pains of childbirth.  But the booklet said that Jesus experienced every category of suffering: physical, emotional, and relational.

Then someone, whom I will call Joy, asked an excellent question: Did Jesus ever experience the internal suffering that comes through guilt, since Jesus was perfect and had nothing to feel guilty about?  Some in the group replied that Jesus may have felt guilt at times, as when he left his parents as a child to go to the Temple.  The more evangelical attendant of our group did not say anything, but I wondered what went through his mind when he heard that, since he has said in the group that Jesus was perfect and sinless, and thus Jesus could be a suitable sacrifice to God on our behalf.

Joy’s question was kind of like a revelation to me.  Sure, in the course of my life, I heard and parroted over and over again the idea that God understands our suffering because Jesus suffered.  But, perhaps unconsciously, I had a hard time believing that because I thought that God the Father and Jesus were perfect.  I saw God and Jesus as beings who imposed on humanity their perfectionistic and unrealistic demands.  I didn’t think that Jesus could, say, understand my struggles with a grudge, since I saw Jesus as so perfect that he was above having petty grudges.  Recently, I’ve been struggling with Jesus’ statement that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others: If that is the case, I thought, then God does not forgive a lot of people, including a number of Christians, who may hold grudges or be very reluctant to get back into a relationship with someone who hurt them, or who has a habit of hurting them.  I doubted that God truly understood or sympathized with humans in their weaknesses.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Write-Up: A Reasonable Response

William Lane Craig and Joseph E. Gorra.  A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity and the Bible.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for my review copy of this book.  See here for Moody’s page about it.

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would.  I was expecting a book in which questioners would ask the same stock questions about God, Christianity, and the Bible, and William Lane Craig would give the usual stock Christian apologetic answers.  But, overall, I was impressed by both the questions and the answers, whether I agreed with them or not.  Many of the questioners had thought about William Lane Craig’s arguments, and there were times when the questions were as lengthy and philosophical as some of Dr. Craig’s answers!  And William Lane Craig in his answers impressed me as one who is well-read and has a grasp of nuance.

As one who is more on the liberal side of the religious spectrum, I appreciated that Dr. Craig appeared open-minded, accepting, or at least tolerant on such issues as biblical inerrancy, different conceptualizations of the atonement, the use of methodological naturalism in science, the question of whether the biblical Conquest historically happened, and historical criticism of the Bible.  I also learned new things from the book, such as the philosophical debate about whether or not time is tenseless (i.e., the past, present, and future exist simultaneously).  Moreover, Dr. Craig offered valuable insights on Christian and practical living, and I appreciated the times when he shared details about himself as a person (i.e., his Christian testimony, his struggle with a neuromuscular disorder, his marriage, the times when he was picked last for athletic teams as a child, etc.).  Moreover, Dr. Craig had beautiful things to say about humility in learning.

In terms of what I did not like about his responses, I thought that there were times when he could have been more tactful rather than putting down questioners’ statements or arguments, and I also did not care for his advice to a Christian struggling with doubt that he not read atheistic websites and that he let people more competent do so.  That struck me as a promotion of closed-mindedness.  I also did not like Dr. Craig’s sentiment that a number of atheists do not believe in God on account of spiritual or moral problems rather than (primarily) for intellectual reasons.  But Dr. Craig may think that he has to believe that way, since Romans 1 says that everyone knows that God exists, but people choose to repress that knowledge.

If there was one issue in the book that especially stood out me, it was that of not knowing.  The first question in the book was about skepticism: How can we be certain of anything (i.e., that the universe has a cause), when there is so much that we do not know, and thus we are unaware of so many possibilities?  I got annoyed with how Dr. Craig often argued against skepticism by saying that it is self-refuting: that, if we cannot know anything, then that means that we cannot trust the claim that we cannot know anything.  That is a fairly decent point, but it does not mean that all of the skeptics’ arguments are without merit, on some level.  It was interesting to me how Dr. Craig interacted with the topic of not knowing throughout the book.  Before he tried to reconcile Gospel contradictions regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, he said that there are things about history that we do not know, perhaps as a way to warn skeptics of the Bible not to be too hasty when they claim that the Bible is historically inaccurate.  Dr. Craig explained why he believes that an intelligent being caused the universe, rather than accepting the argument that there are other possible causes that we may not know about.  And Dr. Craig affirmed that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is a better foundation for faith than resting it on the latest issue of The Philosophical Issue or the most recent archeological discoveries.  These discussions highlighted to me how not knowing can be used as an argument for and against Christianity, as well as the limits of classical apologetics.

Joseph E. Gorra was the other author of this book.  His contributions included thoughtful essays about how study should have a goal beyond satisfying curiosity; ways to bring apologetics into the family, home, and workplace; and how to interact in online discussions.  Although Gorra did not say so explicitly, my impression was that he was responding to popular criticisms of classical apologetics: that it focuses on winning arguments, that it leads to pride, etc.  Gorra was promoting humility, a willingness to learn from others, wisdom and prudence in interactions, and loving those with whom one disagrees.  Gorra also contributed little blurbs inside of a number of Dr. Craig’s answers to questions, highlighting what one can learn from Dr. Craig’s approach.

Finally, I appreciated the numerous references in the book to sources.  A number of the articles and debates that the book mentions can be accessed online and for free, and the book provides readers with web addresses.  The book also refers to books on certain subjects, labeling them according to their level of difficulty.  This will be valuable for those who want to learn more.

Mutual Reinforcement: The Believer and the Community

The March 10, 2014 devotional for Our Daily Bread had a profound statement: “The faith of others encourages; the faith of our own transforms.”  It told the story of King Joash in II Chronicles 24.  King Joash was encouraged by Jehoiada to honor God, but Joash would depart from that path after Jehoiada died.  The implication of the devotional is that Joash did not make his faith his own.

I was thinking about this issue a few days before I read that devotional.  There is a lot of talk within evangelicalism about the importance of Christian community, perhaps as a reaction against the individualism of American evangelicalism, or American culture in general.  Such a communitarian focus has long been a turn-off to me, of course, on account of my difficulty fitting into Christian communities, or any community, for that matter.  My relationship with God has largely been individualistic: I pray, I read the Bible, and I have a personal relationship with God.

But then I thought some more: Granted, I have my own ax to grind when it comes to all the emphasis on community within evangelicalism, but should not Christians in general support the concept of an individual relationship with God, whether they be introverted or extroverted, plugged into a community or on the margins?  Is it not important that Christians have their own relationship with God, their own faith in God, their own Christian walk, something that touches them deeply on a personal level?  Is not faith a personal commitment or decision, something that no one else can do for a person?  I would say so.

I think that Christian community and a personal relationship with God are supposed to reinforce one another.  From Christian community, we can learn thoughts, insights, and support that can help us in our own personal Christian walk, which nobody else can walk for us.  From our own personal Christian walk, we can learn how to interact within Christian community and to put into practice the values that we are learning.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World

Victor H. Matthews.  The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World: An Introduction, second edition.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

I would like to thank Baker Academic for sending me a review copy of this book.  See here for Baker’s page about it.

I have encountered a variety of ideas about Hebrew prophecy in the course of my studies.  Some believe that the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible were written by the person to whom they are attributed, within the historical context to which they are attributed.  Others, however, are more skeptical about this.  Otto Kaiser, in his commentary about Isaiah 1-12, treats a number of passages in that section of the Book of Isaiah as exilic or post-exilic.  Some contend that the introductions to the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible were added later, and thus they may be unreliable in terms of locating or dating the prophecies within the books themselves.  Some appeal to literary shaping and modeling, perhaps to undercut accepting the historicity of much that is claimed about the prophets within the Hebrew Bible.  There are other issues, as well.  Some argue, in a rather apologetic fashion, that biblical prophecy was superior to prophecy and divination elsewhere in the ancient Near East, in that biblical prophecy challenged authority and social injustice.  Then there is the issue of how the biblical prophecies got written down, in a world in which many scribes needed support from some authority in order to write documents.  What authority would sponsor the writing of controversial, anti-establishment prophecies?  Moreover, since the New Testament claims that Jesus fulfilled prophecies in the Hebrew Bible, many Christian scholars wrestle with the question of how this can be true, if the prophecies appear to mean something different within their original historical contexts.

Victor Matthews in The Hebrew Prophets and Their Social World did not explicitly engage every one of these scholarly ideas and questions, but they were in my mind as I was reading this book and seeking to place Matthews on the scholarly spectrum.  Here are my impressions:

1.  Overall, Matthews appears to accept most of the introductions of the biblical prophetic books as reliable.  He believes that Amos delivered most of the prophecies attributed to him, and that Jeremiah delivered most of the prophecies that the Book of Jeremiah claims are his.  This is significant in Matthews’ book, for Matthews offers thoughts about how the social situations of various prophets could have shaped the content of their prophecies: Amos, a farmer, uses agricultural images, whereas Isaiah, who is more entrenched within city-establishment life, appeals to vineyards as an analogy.  Matthews has no problems acknowledging the existence of later interpolations, however, for he states that the prophecy in Jeremiah 33 about the restoration of the Levitical priesthood may be from a later, post-exilic  hand, since Jeremiah was quite critical of the priesthood.  Matthews also accepts the existence of First, Second, and Third Isaiah, as well as First and Second Zechariah.  He also believes in a Hellenistic date for the Book of Daniel.

2.  Matthews acknowledges that something literary is going on in the biblical depiction of the prophets, for he notes similarities between prophetic calls and the call of Moses.  At the same time, Matthews appears to treat the biblical narratives about the prophets as historical (at least overall), for he provides historical context for events in the narratives, context that pertains to the settings that the narratives themselves depict (i.e., in the case of the Elijah story, the time of Ahab).

3.    Matthews points out some differences between ancient Near Eastern divination and Hebrew prophecy.  He still acknowledges, however, that other ancient Near Eastern writings valued social justice.  Overall, I would say that Matthews focuses on the similarities between Hebrew prophets and ancient Near Eastern prophets, not their differences.

4.  On the writing of the prophecies, Matthews discusses this topic on pages 34-35.  He states that the collection, writing, and editing of them “took place over many years and reflected shifting theological agendas as the fortunes of the nation changed”, and that “Decisions made by editors (members of the priestly and prophetic community) and redactors during the Persian period must have had an impact on the final version.”  Matthews also appears open to the possibility that “what is eventually recorded is a synthesis of [the prophets'] themes rather than a dictated, word-for-word message.”  Matthews does not explicitly engage the question of what authorities would have sponsored the writing of the anti-establishment prophecies, but he does note considerations that may be relevant.  Matthews believes that the post-exilic Jewish religious authorities may have had a role in the final written form of the pre-exilic prophecies, and these were authorities that were sympathetic to the pre-exilic prophets.  He notes rare occasions in the Hebrew Bible when prophetic writings were written down by the prophetic community.  He mentions Isaiah’s connection with the Judean establishment.  He also argues that prophets were respected, even when their message was controversial, and thus a prophet could protect himself by claiming “prophetic immunity.”  I still wish that Matthews had explored more deeply the role of sponsorship by authorities in the writing of prophecies, especially when he was discussing the contrary points-of-view in post-exilic Israel, as inclusivist voices challenged reigning exclusivist voices.

5.  On the relationship of Hebrew prophecies to the New Testament, Matthews acknowledges that the Hebrew prophecies in their original contexts meant something different from how New Testament writers applied them.  Matthews regards the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, for example, as Jews in exile.  At the same time, he states on page 181 that “the indeterminate nature of this person or group known as the servant allows for multiple interpretations of these passages, and so it is not inappropriate for Christian writers to reinterpret the passages in light of Jesus’s suffering and redemptive act.”

Overall, Matthews’ book was excellent.  The strongest part of the book, in my opinion, was how he addressed the restoration of exiled Jews to their land: Why did some stay in exile, and why did some return?  Matthews also explored the different exclusivist and inclusivist perspectives within the post-exilic period.

An issue that I wish that Matthews had explored, however (in addition to the issue of sponsorship and writing), is how to approach the Hebrew prophecies religiously, when there are many scholars who maintain that many prophecies did not come to pass.  Matthews does not focus much in his book on the role of the prophets in Christian theology or religion—-except when he criticizes the misuse of the Book of Hosea to sanction spousal abuse.  He would have done well, in my opinion, to have included at least a section dealing with the problem of unfulfilled prophecy in terms of Christian (and maybe even Jewish) theology.

Book Write-Up: Old Testament Theology, by R.W.L. Moberly

R.W.L. Moberly.  Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

I would like to thank Baker Academic for sending me a review copy of this book.  Click here to see Baker’s site about it.

Moberly’s Old Testament Theology is unlike any Old Testament theology book that I have read.  Many of the Old Testament theology books that I have read focus on the theological voices of the sources and schools within the Hebrew Bible, as well as their historical contexts.  These Old Testament theology books either explore the diversity of the theological voices, or they seek some common theological theme among them.  They are quite comprehensive in the amount of sources and voices within the Hebrew Bible that they address.

Moberly, by contrast, organizes his book topically by theological issue, closely reads specific biblical passages, and often explores how the passages (or their themes) have been interpreted elsewhere in the Bible and within Judaism and Christianity.  Moberly admits that his Old Testament theology usually does not attempt to get behind the text and situate it within a specific historical context.  He states more than once within his book that such an enterprise can be rather speculative, for we do not always know the precise historical context or date for a specific passage.  Moberly does not completely disregard historical context, but his overall approach strikes me as synchronic and canonical.  It is synchronic in that Moberly often tries to make sense of the final form of the text rather than merely dividing the text up into sources: Even if a later hand added a particular passage, what theological point does the final text appear to make?  Moberly’s approach is also canonical in that it explores in many cases how a text or a text’s theme was interpreted elsewhere within the Bible, and how religious communities of interpretation have addressed it.

There was at least one occasion where the alleged date of a biblical book was significant to Moberly’s argument, however, and that was when Moberly was discussing cherem, the extermination of the Canaanites in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Noting that many scholars date the Book of Deuteronomy to the seventh century B.C.E. or beyond, when the actual extermination of Canaanites was not an issue, Moberly proposes that the cherem may have had a metaphorical purpose related to Israel’s faithfulness to God and her need to avoid of the religious practices of other nations, rather than relating to the actual slaughter of people-groups.  This was Moberly’s way of explaining a troubling theological issue, namely, God’s command for Israel to slaughter entire Canaanite people-groups.

Moberly often attempts to explain troubling theological issues, against scholars and other voices that are not exactly sympathetic to the Hebrew Bible.  Overall, Moberly does so thoughtfully, respectfully, and with an attitude of an explorer rather than that of a dogmatist or an apologist giving simplistic solutions to complex questions.  I found each chapter to be a rich read.  There was one exception to Moberly’s tactful exploration, and that was when he accused Carl Jung of employing a superficial reading of the Book of Job when Jung criticized God’s treatment of Job.  I did not particularly care for that passage in Moberly’s book, perhaps because I would have preferred for Moberly to acknowledge that Jung raises important considerations, considerations that are on the minds of many readers of the Book of Job.  But I found that passage to be the exception rather than the rule.

Moberly not only interacts with scholarship and prominent historical voices (such as Thomas Paine), but he also makes references to pop culture.  In discussing the Book of Jonah, for example, Moberly explores the complexities surrounding forgiveness, and he refers to the movie Saving Private Ryan, in which a linguist on the side of the Allies compassionately releases a German soldier, only to see that German soldier fire upon his fellow Allies later in the movie.  Moberly’s book was sophisticated and scholarly, yet it was also down-to-earth.

While Moberly’s Old Testament theology is Christian, it respectfully acknowledges and engages Jewish interpretations as well as states that New Testament authors or Christians have had a different or broader conception of passages in the Hebrew Bible than their original meaning.  Whereas God in Deuteronomy 6 commands the Israelites to bind the Shema on their hands and write it on their gates, for example, Christians focus on the Lord’s prayer rather than the Shema.  Still, Moberly notes, many Christians do wear crosses, which resembles how a number of Jews have literally interpreted the command in Deuteronomy 6.  The Book of Isaiah is about God humbling the powerful, and, according to Moberly, Christians can interpret that in light of what Christ did on the cross.  For Moberly, God’s revelation in Christ can shape how Christians approach the Hebrew Bible, even as Christians can respect what the Hebrew Bible’s passages have meant to other religious communities.

There were two things that I especially appreciated about Moberly’s book.  First, there were the questions that he addressed.  How could God command the Israelites to love God with all of their hearts, souls, and minds?  Can God command people to feel something?  Did God call Abraham for Abraham’s sake, or (as Rob Bell claims) so that Abraham could serve others?  Moberly’s answers are not always predictable!

Second, I loved Moberly’s chapter on manna (Chapter 3, “Daily Bread”).  Moberly looked at the story in Exodus, noted its peculiar details, and addressed questions that people have asked about it (i.e., why were the Israelites hungry, when they could have simply slaughtered their livestock?).  Moberly explored the tendency of some to argue that the manna was a natural phenomenon in the desert, rather than a miracle.  Moberly also looked at Deuteronomy 8′s application of the manna story to the issue of trusting in God, Jesus’ application of what Deuteronomy 8 says in the stories about his temptation, ancient Jewish interpretations of the manna as wisdom from above, Jesus’ statements in the Gospel of John that he is the manna from heaven, the importance of requesting daily physical and spiritual sustenance from God, and II Corinthians 8:13-15′s application of the manna story to the just distribution of resources.  All of the book’s chapters were good, but this one, in my opinion, was the richest!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"There Is No Flaw In You"

I have been reading the Song of Solomon for my daily quiet time.  A verse that stood out to me is Song of Solomon 4:7.  I will quote it in the New Revised Standard Version, since that is the version that I am looking at right now.  The man says to the woman: “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.”

The Song of Solomon may have originally been a simple love song, or perhaps it was intended, either originally or canonically, to be about God’s love relationship with Israel.  In any case, when I read it devotionally, I think about God’s love for me, and my love for God.

When God sees those who are in relationship with God, does God say “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you”?  We all have flaws, after all.  Here are some thoughts:

1.  Many Protestants may say that believers are covered by Christ, and thus, when God sees them, God does not see their flaws and their sins, but rather the perfect righteousness of Christ.  Luther said that Christians were like “snow-covered dung.”  Is that why God would call believers beautiful and flawless?  But that seems to violate the spirit of Song of Solomon 4:7, doesn’t it?  For one, it is like God is kidding himself that his beloved is beautiful when she is not, or is choosing to regard her as beautiful when she is not.  Either way, it would undercut the sincerity of Song of Solomon 4:7 (were one to place those words in the mouth of God).  Second, it puts a third party into the intimate relationship that is between God and the believer.  Would you rather be regarded as beautiful because the lover loves you, or because the lover loves a third party, and sees that third party when looking at you?

2.  Some liberal religionists, the sorts who have problems with the doctrines of original sin and penal substitution, may say that we truly are beautiful and flawless in God’s eyes.  God sees us as beautiful and flawless because we are beautiful.  But give me a break!  Of course we have sins and flaws.  Anyone who does not recognize this is not particularly self-aware!  (NOTE: I do not mean to suggest that everyone who has problems with original sin or penal substitution denies that humans are sinners.  A number of times, however, I have read liberal religionists talk about how we are truly beautiful in God's eyes.)

3.  Perhaps one could say that God will regard Israel, the church, individual believers, or humanity as flawless in the eschaton.  As I was considering this possibility, I thought about parallels between the Song of Solomon and how prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible depict God’s eschatological relationship with Israel: in both, the woman is decked out with lovely jewels.  But I am skeptical that the love relationship in the Song of Solomon occurs in the eschaton.  The relationship exists amidst a lot of conflict: the woman’s brothers oppress her and disapprove of her lover, for example.  Conflicts, however, will be addressed and resolved in the eschaton.  The relationship in Song of Solomon occurs before things have been worked out, not after.

4.  Maybe God thinks about how beautiful and flawless believers will become when he looks at them right now.  But, as with number 1, that seems to me to undercut the genuineness of what Song of Solomon 4:7 is saying.  I would like to think that God loves me right now, not that he’s thinking about a potential me.

5.  Perhaps God is blinded to the flaws of those with whom God is in relationship, due to God’s intense love.  But I doubt that God is unaware of my flaws and sins.  How would God help me to grow, if God does not take into consideration my flaws?

Anyway, some may think that I am being overly literal.  Perhaps, but these thoughts are worth consideration, at least by me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book Write-Up: Plato and Aristotle in Agreement?

George E. Karamanolis.  Plato and Aristotle in Agreement?  Platonists on Aristotle from Antiochus to Porphyry.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006.

Something that many Intro to Philosophy students learn is that there were philosophical differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Plato believed that there were transcendent forms, or concepts, that objects in the natural world reflected.  We see horses, for example, and in Plato’s heaven there is a concept of a horse.  Aristotle, by contrast, did not believe in the transcendent forms, but rather focused on particular objects, with their commonalities and peculiarities.  Plato in the Republic said that human beings have a soul consisting of rational, spirited, and appetitive parts.  Aristotle, by contrast, defined the soul as the form that an object took.  Plato thought that a demiurge formed matter into a cosmos.  Aristotle, however, regarded the cosmos as eternal.  Each had distinct elements of his philosophy.  Plato believed that humans were actually recollecting when they “learned” something, since their soul pre-existed their physical existence, and people in learning were remembering what they knew prior to their birth.  Aristotle presented many virtues as a golden mean between two extremes: courage, for example, was in between cowardice and being rash.

Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? is about how Platonist philosophers between the first century B.C.E. and the third century C.E. handled the contradictions between Plato and Aristotle.  One approach was to see Aristotle as one who was faithful to what Plato taught, since Aristotle was a pupil of Plato.  Aristotle believed that there was a divine intellect, for instance, and there were Platonists who suggested that perhaps Aristotle believed that this divine intellect thought about the transcendent forms, implying that Aristotle himself believed in the transcendent forms, like Plato.  Another approach was to acknowledge the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Some did so in order to warn Platonists not to accept Aristotle’s philosophy.  Others, however, did so with less antagonism towards Aristotelianism.

In addition, the book talked about how other schools of philosophy sought to deal with Plato.  Stoics, for example, believed that human beings were born as tabula rasas, which appeared to contradict Plato’s idea that the soul pre-existed and that humans remembered things from their pre-birth life.  The book was also about how Plato’s writings were various and open to interpretation, and thus different people interpreted and applied Plato’s writings in different ways.  Plato, for example, depicted Socrates asking questions and destabilizing people’s ideas, and there were some philosophers who regarded this as an endorsement of philosophical skepticism.

Moreover, the book discussed the philosophical debates and issues of the first century B.C.E. to the third century C.E.  Was the universe good and an extension of God, or was it separate from a God who would not involve himself in inferior and changeable matter?  Was the soul human rationality only, or did it include other parts (a vegetative aspect, for example)?  Did a good life entail denying the body and focusing on virtue alone, or could one be virtuous and also enjoy the pleasures of life?  Were the forms within the divine intellect or the divine soul, or were they rather imminent, as part of nature, instead of transcendent?

Interesting book.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How Big Is God?

At church this morning, during the children’s part of the service, the pastor’s puppet, Jake, asked how big God is.  Someone in the congregation stretched out his arms as wide as he could and said, “This big.”

That reminded me of what I was reading last night in a book that Moody Press sent me to review.  (This post is not my official review, but I am just referring to the book.)  The book is A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity and the Bible.  In this book, renowned Christian apologist William Lane Craig responds to questions that people have sent him about God, Christianity, and the Bible.  At least two of the questions dealt with God’s infinity and omnipresence.  One person asked if God’s infinity implied pantheism.  If God is without limit, then there is nothing separating God from anything or anyone else, right?  If that is the case, is not God everything, and everything is God?  Another person inquired how Jesus could be omnipresent when he was on earth, since, as a human being, he could only be in one place at a time.

These questions have been somewhere in my mind for some time.  On the question about God’s infinity and lack of boundaries, I thought back to a tape I heard in which a rabbi was arguing against Christian doctrines.  The rabbi was saying that God could never become incarnate as a human being because one of God’s properties is infinity.  Once God becomes a human being, however, God is no longer infinite, for God is then finite and has limitations and boundaries.  The rabbi could not conceive of this being the case with God.  When I heard the rabbi say this, I had the same question that the one person asked Dr. Craig: If nothing separates God from anything or anyone else, does not that imply pantheism?  What, if anything, distinguishes or separates us from God?

On the question about whether Jesus was omnipresent in the flesh, this issue was in my mind back when I was on a Christian dating site.  Some, appealing to Philippians 2, asserted that Jesus laid aside or emptied himself of certain divine prerogatives when he became a human, and that presumably would include his omnipresence.  Others, by contrast, believed that this notion compromised the idea that Jesus was fully divine even as a human being, and so they tried to argue that Jesus somehow had all of his divine attributes when he was in the flesh, but some of them he hid, or put in hibernation, or whatever.  In terms of my Armstrongite background, I think that it went more with the first idea, that Jesus laid aside his divine prerogatives at the incarnation.  I do recall someone saying to me, however, that Jesus could have been in one place at a time, and yet his spirit would still be everywhere.

How did Dr. Craig answer these questions?  Regarding the first question, the one on God’s infinity and pantheism, Dr. Craig states on pages 161-162:

“Persons have ‘boundaries’ in a metaphorical sense: you are not I.  God is not Gordon Brown.  But the fact that two persons are distinct doesn’t imply that one of them can’t be infinite.  Of course, God’s infinity isn’t really a quantitative concept but has reference to His superlative attributes.  But then there’s no reason to think that one person could not be omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, morally perfect, eternal, etc., and the other limited in these same respects.  None of those attributes excludes the existence of a distinct person who has limited knowledge, goodness, power, etc.”

What I take this to mean is that God is infinite in terms of his attributes—-God is infinite in knowledge, power, goodness, etc.—-not in the sense that there are no boundaries distinguishing God from everything and everyone else.

Regarding the second question, the one about whether Jesus in the flesh was omnipresent, Dr. Craig states on page 164:

“…when it comes to omnipresence, I take this attribute to mean not that God is spread out like ether throughout space but that He is cognizant of and causally active at every point in space.  That can still hold for the Logos during His state of humiliation.  It just wasn’t part of Jesus’ conscious life.”

Dr. Craig appears to do two things here.  First, he defines omnipresence as awareness about “every point in space” and activity therein, not as literally and physically being present everywhere.  Second, Dr. Craig maintains that Jesus somehow had this attribute of omnipresence during the incarnation.  How could Jesus have functioned if he were continually aware of and causing things in “every point in space”?  According to Dr. Craig, this was not a “part of Jesus’ conscious life.”  Jesus was omnipresent, for Dr. Craig, but he was not entirely conscious of that.  I can’t say that makes total sense to me, but Dr. Craig is trying here!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I Chronicles 1

I started I Chronicles for my weekly quiet time!  To read I Chronicles 1, see here.  I have two items for my write-up on I Chronicles 1.

1.  Something that the reader will note about I Chronicles is that it has chapters of genealogies.  Why?  The United Church of God’s commentary on I Chronicles 1 quotes the Bible Reader’s Companion (Lawrence Richards, 1991), which lists eight possible reasons for genealogies in the Hebrew Bible:
“At least eight different purposes of O[ld] T[estament] genealogies have been suggested. (1) To show relationships between Israel and neighboring peoples. (2) To show relationships between elements in the story of Israel’s origins. (3) To link periods of time not covered by other material. (4) As a means of organizing Israel’s men for warfare, by tribe and family. (5) To demonstrate the legitimacy of a person or family’s claim to a particular role or rank. (6) To preserve the purity of the chosen people and/or its priesthood. (7) To affirm the continuity of the people of God despite expulsion from the Promised Land. (8) To demonstrate progress toward achieving God’s revealed purposes; to show that the Lord is sovereignly shaping history in accord with His own plan. The genealogies of the O[ld] T[estament] play a vital role in maintaining the integrity, and showing the continuity, of Scripture’s story of salvation…”

A lot of these make sense for I Chronicles, in light of I Chronicles’ status as a post-exilic book.  I Chronicles may have genealogies as a way to affirm a societal structure in post-exilic Israel and to connect it with pre-exilic Israel, to tell Israel who she is, and to convey that God is preserving God’s people, notwithstanding the exile.  There were a lot of people-groups that became lost once they went into exile, but I Chronicles may be trying to demonstrate that Israel did not.

I would probably qualify some of the criteria above, in terms of I Chronicles, that is.  First of all, do the genealogies in I Chronicles attempt to “preserve the purity of the chosen people”?  I am somewhat doubtful of this, for I Chronicles’ genealogy does note a lot of intermarriages between Israelites and Gentiles.  That is why there are biblical scholars who have questioned the traditional or the scholarly view that Ezra wrote I Chronicles: whereas Ezra seems to be obsessed with keeping Israel pure from intermarriage with Gentiles, I Chronicles asserts that intermarriages have been a part of Israel’s history.  I Chronicles still, however, may be attempting to tell Israel who she is, while distinguishing her from other nations.  Second, on (4), were the genealogies in I Chronicles designed to organize Israelite men for the purpose of warfare?  I doubt that the Persians would want to hear that Israelites are organizing for warfare, and yet there were times when post-exilic Israelites fought: consider events in the Book of Nehemiah, for example.  There is also the question of whether I Chronicles was envisioning the restoration of the Davidic monarchy: some say “yes,” and some say “no.”  If it is “yes,” then maybe the author of I Chronicles was envisioning Israelites having to engage in warfare.  And yet, I am somewhat doubtful that the genealogies in I Chronicles relate to war.  In Numbers, what I see are lists of tribes and the number of fighting men within them, but that is not what I see in I Chronicles’ genealogy.  (UPDATE: I notice that I Chronicles 7 talks about fighting men.  When were they, though?)

2.  There are contradictions between genealogies in I Chronicles and genealogies elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.  The orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary, however, seeks not only to reconcile the contradictions, but also to demonstrate that the contradictions convey a significant nuance.  There appears to be a contradiction between I Chronicles 1:7 and Genesis 10:4 on whether an offspring or a group from Javan were called the Dodanim or the Rodanim.  This may not be a significant contradiction, since the “d” and the “r” in Hebrew look similar and could have been confused, but let’s see what the Artscroll does.  Relying on Mefaresh’s interpretation, which is based on Genesis Rabbah 37:1, the Artscroll says that, when Israel sins, the people-group subjugates Israel and is called the Rodanim, from the Hebrew root r-d-h, which means ruling or oppressing.  If Israel controls the people-group, however, the people-group is called the Dodanim, for it is telling Israel that she is its friend, or dod.  According to the Artscroll, I Chronicles has Rodanim, whereas Genesis has Dodanim.

I am not entirely sure about where to go with this.  Javan is often interpreted as Greece: in modern Hebrew, “Greek” is “Yavanite.”  Is the Artscroll (or the interpreters it cites in this case) saying that Israel was ruling Greece when Genesis 10:4 was written, whereas Greece was ruling Israel when I Chronicles 1:7 was written?  According to traditional Judaism, Moses wrote Genesis, and I do not recall Israel subjugating Greece at that time.  And traditional Judaism held that Ezra wrote I Chronicles, and that was before the time that Greece controlled Israel.  Maybe the idea is that Moses was foreseeing that Israel would soon subjugate Greece or people who became Greeks, or he wanted to emphasize that point: I think of Genesis 9:27, which says that Japheth (Javan was Japheth’s son) would dwell in the tents of Shem (from which Israel was descended).  And maybe the idea is that Ezra was predicting that Israel would be subjugated by Greece and wanted to highlight that point.  Moses was anticipating the Davidic and Solomonic monarchy, in which Israel was powerful, whereas Ezra was writing in Israel’s post-exilic period, in which Israel was and would be subjugated.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Repentance, Regret, Restoration, and Dealing with Guilt

For its Bible study, my church is going through The Easter Experience: What If What Happened Then Changes Everything Now?  The topic of last night’s lesson was regret vs. repentance.  Judas regretted betraying Jesus, and he tried to make up for what he did by returning the pieces of silver that he got for the betrayal.  But he could not undo what he had done, and he felt a great deal of guilt.  Consequently, he killed himself.  (Or so says Matthew’s Gospel.  The Book of Acts appears to tell a different story!)

Peter also betrayed Jesus in that he denied him three times, but he did not try to make up for his sin all by himself.  Rather, he came to Jesus, and Jesus forgave and restored him, as well as gave him a mission: to feed Jesus’ sheep.  The pastor on the DVD that we watched told a story about a college student who majored in partying, and his grades and Christian walk were really suffering.  He called his parents, and they told him to come home.  The pastor was saying that this is what repentance is: it’s coming home.  We’re going home to the God who welcomes us, loves us, and made us.

This was a slightly different understanding of repentance from what I have gotten in the past.  Repentance has often been presented to me as changing the course in which one lives his or her life: a person stops sinning and starts doing good.  In the Hebrew, the word for repentance is teshuvah, which means to turn.  But the lesson last night made me think that perhaps I should not see repentance as me pulling myself up by my bootstraps and getting my life in order.  Rather, it is me turning to God.  It is me coming home.  A righteous life accompanies that, granted, but I like seeing repentance in more of a relational sense.

The lesson asked why many people try to fix their own problems after making a mistake rather than turning to Jesus.  I did not speak up in group, but I think that one reason is that we believe that receiving God’s forgiveness somehow trivializes the evil of what we did.  We feel that we have to take care of the problem, and that this is better than us just going around blithely thinking that God has forgiven us.  There are plenty of people who have caused damage to others, yet they walk around feeling good because they believe that God has forgiven them.  Does that trivialize their evil?  Forgiveness does not have to be seen as something cheap, however.  Christianity states that it came at the cost of Jesus’ life.  In the area of interpersonal relationships, there are things that people can do to make restitution: they can pay back what they owe, they can apologize, or they can take steps not to repeat the offending behavior.

Another consideration: There are times when I do something wrong—-say, I lose my temper and tell someone off—-and I feel guilty when I come into God’s presence.  That may be a reason that people try to fix their own problems after making a mistake rather than going to Jesus: they feel guilty and inadequate to enter God’s presence.  I knew a couple, and they ordinarily prayed before meals.  When they got into a fight and were about to eat a meal, however, they skipped the prayer part.  They may have felt that they could not contaminate the purity of a religious act with their own flaws, that to do so would be hypocrisy on their part.  I do not think that such guilt is entirely bad: there are Scriptures about how sins can hinder our prayers.  At the same time, I believe it is important that I see God as my ally, not my enemy.  God is rooting for me in the sense that God wants me to get back up and try again.  God is there to support and to restore me.  So, if I tell someone off, I can come to God afterwards, and he will love me and forgive me.  But that should not be an excuse for me to avoid offering the person I told off an apology!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Write-Up: Common Sense, by Noah Lemos

Noah Lemos.  Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Noah Lemos is a professor of philosophy who teaches at the College of William and Mary.  I had him for a class back when I was a student at DePauw University, which was where he was teaching at the time, and which was also where he was teaching when he wrote Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense.  Come to think of it, he may have mentioned this project to the class of his that I was taking.  The class was about good and evil, and it was there that I learned about the thoughts of Plato and Aristotle.  We also read some Dante and Augustine.

Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense is a defense of the common sense tradition within philosophy.  Essentially, the common sense tradition affirms that certain common sense propositions count as knowledge, and that one can just assume them when one is doing philosophy.  These propositions include: that there is an external world outside of us, that there are other people, that our senses and our memories are rather reliable in helping us to know things, and that we should not deliberately harm another human being.  Contrary to the common sense tradition is the belief that these propositions need to be justified before one can appeal to them in philosophy, or skepticism about genuine knowledge of an external world or morality.

Dr. Lemos interacts with the thoughts of various philosophers, but the three main ones in this book are Thomas Reid, G.E. Moore, and Roderick Chisholm, who are prominent proponents of the common sense tradition.  Reid was an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and critic of David Hume, and his version of the common sense tradition was critiqued by Immanuel Kant.  In Common Sense: A Contemporary Defense, Dr. Lemos explores the thoughts of these three common sense philosophers and responds to their critics.  In some cases, Dr. Lemos disagrees with how Reid, Moore, and Chisholm formulate certain issues, even though he agrees with the common sense tradition itself.  Moreover, there are cases in which a common sense philosopher may support common sense on one issue, but not on another: Moore, for example, was pro-common sense when it came to epistemology (i.e., knowing that there is an external world), but not so much in the area of morality (i.e., whether we can know that certain actions are right or wrong).

Dr. Lemos’ book is quite lucid, and yet it is a book with a number of philosophical arguments, where propositions are laid out and letters can stand for certain propositions.  Consequently, there are places in the book that require extra discipline and focus for one to understand where Dr. Lemos is going.  To be honest, I did not follow all of the arguments in Common Sense, so my analysis will be limited.  But I will offer a few thoughts, from my limited perspective.

First of all, Dr. Lemos says more than once in Common Sense that, if people need to justify the knowledge that they gain from their senses, that means that children and animals do not know things, for they are not sophisticated enough to come up with an epistemological justification for what they “know” from their senses.  In one place in the book, Dr. Lemos notes that different philosophers have different epistemological justifications for their ability to know things, and Dr. Lemos seems to think that this undermines the very need for epistemological justifications for trusting our senses as means to knowledge.  Are we truly supposed to believe, after all, that children and animals do not “know” things, or that a philosopher may not legitimately know something because he happens to have the wrong epistemological justification for what he considers knowledge?  There is a part of me that can sympathize with these arguments, and there is a part of me that is not entirely convinced by them.  Just because children or animals do not know why they can trust their senses, that, in my opinion, does not necessarily mean that philosophers should not try to explain why sensory perception is reliable.  And, just because philosophers may have different (even contradictory) explanations, that does not necessarily mean that searching for a decent explanation is wrong-headed.  A significant part of academia is seeking justifications that may not occur to everyone outside of academia, of trying to discover the “why?” behind the “what?”  Scholars may disagree about the “why?”, but that does not mean that searching for the “why?” is unimportant.  As I will explain later in this post, I sympathize with the common sense tradition, as Dr. Lemos has explained it, but I was not fully satisfied with these particular arguments (which may be due to my incomplete understanding of them).

Second, Dr. Lemos appears to confront the extremist tendencies of skeptics and critics of the common sense tradition.  Granted, not every belief that is commonly held is true, Dr. Lemos contends, but that does not mean that we cannot trust our senses or our memories.  Granted, different cultures have different moral codes, but that does not mean that we cannot say that murdering someone is wrong.  In these cases, Dr. Lemos’ arguments resembled what I have heard from professors of mine who have critiqued postmodernism: yes, there is ambiguity and subjectivity, but that does not mean that everything is ambiguous or subjective.

I found myself in sympathy with the common sense tradition, for two reasons.  First of all, Dr. Lemos quoted David Hume’s reference to an argument that the physical world is irresistible.  I do not know if David Hume himself believed this, or, if so, how that would square with Hume’s alleged skepticism (if he truly was a skeptic).  But that sort of argument makes sense to me.  I assume that the physical world exists because I cannot resist it.  I remember one guy telling a story about his first experience in a philosophy class, and the professor was saying that he did not know if a chair was truly there.  “Let me smash the chair over you, and then you can tell me whether it’s there or not!”, the student replied.  To be honest, I do not know what exactly to do with philosophical skepticism, the notion that I cannot trust that there is an external world.  I feel a need to learn about Kant’s thought primarily because it appears to be important in the world of academia (at least the humanities part of it), and that is where I am, but what am I supposed to do with his alleged belief that there is no time or space (or so Kant’s thoughts have been presented to me)?  I am all for epistemological humility, but I do not plan to live my life as if there is no external world.  Moreover, I wonder how exactly such a belief contributes to the furtherance of knowledge.  What yields, if any, does skepticism offer?  I tend to agree with the common sense tradition that I should just assume that there is an external world.  Even if my brain is in a vat somewhere, from my perspective, I still need to live in the world.  And, even if an evil genius is deluding me into thinking that the external world is real, I have found that trusting my faculties has worked for me, overall.

Second, Dr. Lemos referred in a couple of places to the argument that we have to start somewhere.  Okay, let us assume that I cannot trust my faculties without offering an epistemological justification for trusting my faculties.  To what will my epistemological arguments appeal?  To people’s faculties!  How can one escape that?  How can one justify using reason in a non-circular fashion, when one has to use reason to do so?

I did not understand everything in Common Sense, but I still profited from it, in that I learned more about philosophical schools of thought.

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