Tag Archives: philosophy


On words and meaning

In 2001, American writer/philosopher David Foster Wallace wrote a famous review of a dictionary.

Just ponder for a moment how a review of a dictionary might become famous.

It’s one of my favourite essays because while it does what it says on the tin, it also explains huge swathes of disagreement in modern life; it accounts for why so often we talk past one another in disagreements while using the same words.

It’s because the same words mean different things to different people based on an underlying understanding of how words work; what DFW called ‘a usage war’ — we’re seeing the fruits of that war, and most of the time we don’t even realise that’s what happening. He said, of introductory essays published in dictionaries:

“They’re salvos in the Usage Wars that have been” under way ever since editor Philip Gave first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in Webster’s’ Third. Gave’s famous response to conservatives who howled when Webster’s Third endorsed OK and described ain’t as “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers [sic}” was this: “A dictionary should have no traffic with … ‘artificial notion of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” These terms stuck and turned epithetic, and linguistic conservatives are now formally known as Prescriptivists and linguistic liberals as Descriptivists.

In one sense the war between prescriptivists and descriptivists is a war between objectivity and subjectivity; modernity and post-modernity; or conservatives and progressives. On the one hand are those who think words necessarily have an objective meaning, dictated by their ability to describe an actual thing, and only ever that thing. The meaning is fixed etymologically. Dictionaries tell you what a word actually means. On the other hand, there are those who think words are subjective; that our words are always analogies coming from our perspective attempting to describe reality in intelligible ways, but always limited — and also contested and subject to change, and meaning is dictated by usage. Particularly how the user conceives of the meaning of the word; but also how that word is understood in particular interpretive communities — and we must be mindful of that context, not just etymology.

I might be a nerd; but it fascinates me that this approach to language actually, fundamentally, plays out in disputes across those trenches — between modernists and post-modernists, and conservatives and progressives (and post-modern conservatives and modernist conservatives and post-modern progressives and modernist progressives). There are often things at stake in the definition of these words and how they’re used too; take a couple of examples; there’s currently a debate being waged within the LGBTIQA+ community, and within the feminist community (as much as those can be monolithic communities) about the meaning of words. Those communities are typically progressive (in many ways that we would understand that word). And yet, traditional feminists fought very hard for the word ‘woman’ to mean a particular thing; they’re now labelled as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs), because they won’t broaden the label to mean something new — to assign the label based on a constructed gender identity, rather than an objectively observable biological reality (anatomical sex), even while recognising that gender is constructed. For members of the LGBTIQA+ community this same issue plays out for, say, gay men, who have lobbied for the recognition of their rights to love other men, only for the meaning of the word ‘men’ to also be contested. The contest is a language usage war.

I tend to be a descriptivist, because I think that better reflects the reality of how language is used, though deep down I’d prefer a more prescriptive approach to words and meaning. But this means we have to be careful, as individuals, when engaging in discussions, to notice not just what others are saying but how others are using words. It’s very easy to insist that other people are using words the way we believe they should be using them, and then crucify them, rather than entering the contest of meaning for words or terminology by bringing a broadened perspective, or arguing for a particular manner of usage.

One person responded to my last post about ‘toxic churchianity’ by saying I’d lost his interest in what I had to say by using the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ He suggested there is no such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’ — there’s just the objectively positive good that is masculinity and anything else is actually not masculinity. This was a ‘prescriptive’ approach to language, that doesn’t grapple with a larger cultural conversation around what the meaning of ‘masculinity’ is, and where some proffered definitions might sometimes need contesting and qualifying to distinguish them from others; I’m comfortable entering that contest for meaning, and that conversation, because of how I think language works.

For a prescriptivist, language is ‘ontological;’ to name something is to describe it as it really is prescriptively, on every occasion. A word means what it means. This is a lot of weight for language to bear; and it limits the creative/artistic/poetic use of language where we can use words to create things that are not. This has interesting implications for how we exegete the Bible too — if words always mean what they etymologically mean in a prescriptive, technical, dictionary sense then we are assuming a certain sort of approach to writing from the authors of Scripture (a modernist one). This ontological thing is at play in a debate currently taking place within the conservative church, in a similar way to the debate playing out in the progressive communities described above. There’s a debate about how Christians who experience same sex attraction should describe themselves; and whether they should use the label gay. This debate, from a conservative prescriptive perspective is a no brainer; because to use the word ‘gay’ is an ontological claim about who a person is; and in Christ, one’s identity is transformed. In that theory of language, it makes no sense to use the label gay. But here’s why I’m not convinced by that argument; I don’t think language works that way, or that this is the claim being made by those people who use the label gay while pursuing a traditional Biblical sexual ethic. When you listen carefully to these brothers and sisters they say they use the label to describe their experience; or story. It’s not an ontological claim in terms of being an objective fixed reality (though I do think ontology/personhood/identity actually works narratively, not simply as a fixed objective reality too; I think a materialist, objective, ontology is a modern construct that we often impose on ancient texts, like Genesis, where ontology there is more relational and functional, and connected to a narrative — so my approach to language is theological, but this is circular, and prescriptivists would say the same thing about their exegesis, their theology, and their approach to languge). If we insist that words work a particular way; if there was no contest; then I think one camp in this debate could insist that the other use words in a particular, objectively correct, way. But I don’t think there’s much space for Christians, especially english speaking Christians, to insist things like that — because as people reading translations of texts from ancient languages, where the complexity of language has to be part of the fabric of how a translation is produced, we know we are experiencing the subjectivity of language as we read the Bible and dig into the Greek or Hebrew to find the semantic range of a word. We read a Bible that has puns, and deliberate ambiguity, and word play built in because words do not always have objective fixed meanings. Also, on the belief that words and labels function ‘ontologically’ and in prescriptive rather than descriptive ways; and the idea that a Christian cannot identify (ontologically) with their sin as though that is a prescriptive reality; someone ought to tell the writers of the New Testament who refer to Rahab as “Rahab the prostitute” and Simon as “Simon the Zealot”— those are descriptions of part of their stories, not a prescriptive ontological claims about them.

Understanding how we use language is important; but the debate is not neutral; adopting a ‘descriptive’ framework — one born to some extent out of post-modernity’s reaction to modernity — is now politically loaded. George Orwell famously noted how political regimes with nefarious intent blur the meaning of language through doublespeak and the creation of very technically correct prescriptive looking language to describe things in particularly opaque (though technically correct) ways; and we see this in modern bureaucracy where ‘public relations’ is used (or “effectively utilised”) to prop up powerful status quos. Progressives (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) want to change the meaning of words through pointing both to the contested nature of understanding, but also to the dubious authorities that gave words their meaning. Sometimes word meanings should be contested; etymology is a useful guide for description and employing words carefully to describe reality as we understand it. DFW notes that descriptivism is the air anyone educated after about the 1970s in the west lives and breathes.

“For one thing, Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively-via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males’? and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic,’ homophobic, elitist: unfair.”

We’re not going to solve this dispute about how words work any time soon, but understanding that the way words and language works is contested might help us listen better to each other in areas of disagreement. It might also help those of us who care about objective truths contend for understandable descriptions of reality.


Handing in my Skeptic’s Card

handing in my skeptics card

I’m not the skeptic I thought I was. Forgive me for a slightly self-indulgent post musing on how I think, but this has come as quite a shock to me. It might make a change from wading through umpteen thousand words about what I think…

I’m not a skeptic.

This may not surprise you, given that my day job is to convince people of the existence of a supernatural being who sent his supernatural son (a son who shares his being) into the world he made to die and be raised from the dead. Many people think this particular sort of belief in the supernatural defies skepticism because it defies evidence and seems unbelievable (so shouldn’t be believed). I am skeptical about this sort of blanket dismissal of a particular worldview and its approach to evidence. I am skeptical about skepticism. But the fact that I’m not a skeptic surprises me.

For a long time I have described myself as a skeptic. I’ve understood my approach to truth claims as skeptical. I have understood skepticism as a core part of my epistemology (how I seek to know stuff). I’ve seen this as completely consistent with my Christianity, which I still believe is reasonable and evidence based.

I’m not really announcing a massive change in how I think I know things, just how I describe myself, particularly when it comes to discussions about Christianity. I’ll no longer play the “I’m a skeptic too” card.

There are many varieties of skepticism, many definitions, some more technical than others. What I’m talking about is skepticism as wikipedia defines it.

Skepticism is generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere. Philosophical skepticism is an overall approach that requires all information to be well supported by evidence.”

The bold bits are particularly what I’ve been coming to term with, mostly it’s about the optimistic posture I’ve found myself taking to truth claims and what I consider to be evidence that supports these truth claims. Some of the tools of skepticism still form part of how I piece together my view of the world – tools like critical thinking, rational thought, logic… I still employ these in my approach to new information. But one thing I’m dissatisfied with when it comes to skepticism is that it is so negative. I’m much more inclined to take bits of information and see how they integrate into what I already understand about the world than see each bit of information as something to be rejected, or, if it passes, placed alongside other things I have evidence for as another factoid.

I have come to realise is that skepticism does not excite me. It doesn’t light my fires. It’s not the posture I want to adopt towards learning about the world. It’s not how I want to position myself when it comes to people who come forward with new information that challenges my thinking. I don’t want my default to be doubt, I want it to be seeing if the thing will fly. If it will fit with what I understand about the world, if it will add colour, depth, and life. I’ll still reject stuff that is wacky and nonsense, but the approach to that rejection won’t begin in the same place. Which is weird. Realising this has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.

Most people – skeptics included seek to organise the facts they accept into some sort of systematic view of the world. I’m not wanting to paint skepticism as holding to a bunch of disconnected facts without seeing how they fit together, but truly skeptical people must always doubt that they’ve got the fit right. They must question both the merit of a particular fact, and, simultaneously, the merit of the frame they try to use to hold it.

I’ve decided that for me, a systematic view of the world actually helps me organise and accept facts. And I’ve decided I’m committed to many approaches to new data prior to applying the skeptical approach to the world. So I can’t call myself a skeptic. It turns out, the system by which I organise new information has been there all along – it’s been how I identify myself all along. It’s my faith. My belief that the world is best explained when the God who made it is present. This system guides my presuppositions, but not because the system tells me it should. I don’t think. I think I have good reasons to go with Christianity as the organising idea on philosophical, aesthetic, logical, and evidentiary grounds. I am skeptical about other organising ideas having the same explanatory power as Christianity.  But to be frank, even if I think I chose the system through a skeptical approach based on evidence, I can’t escape the truth that given my upbringing Christianity is something like the default for me – so I have to keep exploring the possibility that other options will do it better. The way to assess this is how well a particular view integrates all the available data, the facts about the workings of the world, that I have come across and been convinced are true.

This isn’t skepticism. It’s freeing to admit this.

New facts don’t force me to toss out the system, but they will shape how I understand the workings of this system. I like this description, again from wikipedia, of ‘Knowledge Integration‘… this strikes me as much more fun, stimulating, and worthwhile. It also describes my intuitive approach to thinking about stuff much better than boring old skepticism.

Knowledge integration has also been studied as the process of incorporating new information into a body of existing knowledge with an interdisciplinary approach. This process involves determining how the new information and the existing knowledge interact, how existing knowledge should be modified to accommodate the new information, and how the new information should be modified in light of the existing knowledge.”

I want to know stuff. I want to see how all the different streams of information, all the different facts, all the different fields of scholarship – from philosophy, to science, to the arts, to theology, can be integrated in a coherent and exciting way. One of these fields of knowledge has to provide the organising framework for the others. I think that’s just how it works. For me, this is theology – Christian theology – it helps me make sense of the world. As CS Lewis says:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

I’m liking this quote more and more.

I’ll stick with Christianity until I find a better look out point from which to view the world (and I’ll continue to allow my presuppositions to be challenged, though I admit to finding the intricacies and aesthetics of Christianity quite compelling). I’m probably too far gone. I just don’t know what other system accommodates and explains the Jesus event, and the emergence of Christianity post-crucifixion with the same power as Christianity. I think Christianity offers the best explanation of world history, the human condition, and our ability to do science and know anything as real. I think Christianity is the most coherent philosophical and ethical framework. I think the Bible’s story, centred on Jesus, is, aesthetically speaking, the best narrative to live by. But I’m open to other ideas.

Hume, Penn Jillette, and faith v reason

I mentioned I’d been reading Hume the other day. He characterises “religious people” in a slightly well-poisoning way in the midst of his discussion in Dialogues on Natural Religion

“And here we may observe, continued he, turning himself towards DEMEA, a pretty curious circumstance in the history of the sciences. After the union of philosophy with the popular religion, upon the first establishment of Christianity, nothing was more usual, among all religious teachers, than declamations against reason, against the senses, against every principle derived merely from human research and inquiry… The Reformers embraced the same principles of reasoning, or rather declamation; and all panegyrics on the excellency of faith, were sure to be interlarded with some severe strokes of satire against natural reason.”

This characterisation has become a bit of a meme. It treats all religious belief as outside of human reason, a case Hume attempted to make in his seminal ‘Of Miracles’ in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. There, Hume argues that because miracles don’t happen, because they are outside of nature, and are almost impossible to verify using a naturalistic framework (a somewhat circular approach to the supernatural), religious belief operates in the world of faith, not reason. He pushes a form of fideism. The belief that reason and faith are in conflict. He does this because he needs to maintain some veneer of being an orthodox Christian, because not being an orthodox Christian in 18th century Scotland is pretty difficult – fideism is a cop out, Hume probably didn’t hold to it – given that his entire academic program contradicted it, and it’s pretty sloppy arguing, on behalf of modern atheists to characterise faith in this way.

Fideism is dumb. Faith might be the belief in things unseen or hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), but it is also based on experience and observation, and not a little reason. That’s pretty consistently been the Christian approach to faith and knowledge since, well, forever. That’s why science was a product of Christians trying to read and understand God’s world better. Seriously. Google Francis Bacon. And it’s why atheistic naturalism’s sweeping claims are devoid of anything that looks like history or philosophy

It’d be great for the thinking, intellectually honest, atheists out there to break free of the group think shackles of this meme, and start admitting they don’t have a monopoly on reason.

But no. It continues. Enter Penn Jillette’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Penn’s a smart guy. He’s funny. He’s been reasonably nice about Christians in the past – while clearly disagreeing with people of faith. But this article perpetuates a false meme. To be fair, he’s answering an equally annoying meme from our side – the claim that atheism is a religion…

Here’s what he says…

Religion is faith. Faith is belief without evidence. Belief without evidence cannot be shared. Faith is a feeling. Love is also a feeling, but love makes no universal claims. Love is pure. The lover reports on his or her feelings and needs nothing more. Faith claims knowledge of a world we share but without evidence we can share.

Faith is a hypothesis, as is atheism, about the question of God’s existence on the basis of evidence – like revelation, history, philosophy, and not a little bit of reasoning on the basis of our own existence.

It’s a positive hypothesis, while atheism is a negative hypothesis. There are plenty of less than good systems of religion built on varying types of faith – but faith itself should never be maintained contrary to actual evidence. It’s just that the evidence that naturalists put forward is so dissatisfying on anything but a purely material level, and in its modern form (possibly since Hume) it fails to consider any alternative frameworks and anything that has come before it. Hume was pretty good at characterising or ignoring the people who made good arguments against what he was saying, his whole project in Dialogues and Enquiry essentially ignores 1,700 years of Christian thought that is relevant to the natural theology exercise. Christians have something to say on how we read nature based on the Bible – and I’m not talking about accounts of human origins, but accounts of human nature, and the application of a Christian anthropology to the scientific endeavour had been serving us pretty well since Christians kicked the scientific process off because they believed God supplied a guarantee that the natural order would continue in the way that he created it to operate.

That is all.

The old atheism: why it’s more dangerous than the “new”

I don’t want to suggest Richard Dawkins and his other two horseman friends (following the very tragic demise of Christopher Hitchens) aren’t effective in their campaigns against religion, and for atheism… but I’ve been reading some David Hume (Dialogues on Natural Religion) for the Philosophy subject I’m taking at college this year, and he’s much more interesting and engaging, and therefore more dangerous, than today’s $2 shop atheists like Richard Dawkins. He makes some of the bilious rhetoric these modern guys employ seem very cheap indeed, not because the substance of his argument is all that different – in many ways Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins have all simply been developing Hume’s arguments in line with modern knowledge, but because he is all style. He’s just so winsome, and gentle, it’s like one of those kung-fu moves from the B-Grade movies out there, where you don’t know he’s actually started hitting you until it’s too late – unless, you are familiar with kung-fu.

I can’t help but make comparisons with Dawkins as I read Hume (By the by, Hume’s Dialogue, while it was said to undermine “natural theology” and the argument from design pretty much assumes the conclusions it then sets out to prove, by essentially ruling out divine revelation by looking for natural causes of both nature and religion, and then admitting that such revelation is probably necessary to know anything about the nature of God).

Hume is wrong because he essentially fails to engage with the question of who Jesus is – God made incarnate. God made subject to empirical observations. God made man – a man who was real, historically verifiable, and whose death and resurrection didn’t just legitimise his claim to be king – but all the stuff he said was written to point to him from beforehand – the Old Testament, and the testimonies that are written about him are the empirical evidence offered to support his claims. Written documentation of history – Hume was a history writer himself, so it’s surprising he’s so dismissive of history’s ability to contain and describe truth.

But back to the comparisons…

I like how at times Hume, in contrast to Dawkins, will engage with some of the big theological questions that present themselves in the course of his argument (lets not forget how Dawkins chooses not to engage with where hard Christian thought is happening), here he is highlighting the dangers of trying to draw an analogy from the creation to the creator:

“But as all perfection is entirely relative, we ought never to imagine that we comprehend the attributes of this divine Being, or to suppose that his perfections have any analogy or likeness to the perfections of a human creature. Wisdom, Thought, Design, Knowledge; these we justly ascribe to him; because these words are honourable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions by which we can express our adoration of him.”

At that point he presents a much bigger picture of God than he seems to employ throughout the book, where his God, if he exists at all, is a neutered, deistic god, who has no influence on natural events, and potentially even less interest. It’s a bigger picture of god than some modern Christians are willing to conceive. God is so far beyond comparison to man that drawing analogies is largely futile… unless, of course, you have something that claims to be the word of God which essentially establishes a comparison between God and man (Gen 1:26-27) right off the bat…

Anyway, like I say, I’ve enjoyed reading Hume because he seems genuine in grappling with the issues he’s writing about – though you’re never really sure, at this point, how much legitimacy he’s giving to opinions other than his own when he writes, his Christian character, Demea, who promises to indoctrinate her children before they’re taught any “scientific” enquiry, is pretty much a caricature with very little of substance to contribute.

Where Dawkins is shrill, Hume is gentle. Where Dawkins is bombastic, Hume presents with doubt and not a little epistemic humility. Where Dawkins is brash and intolerant, Hume is empathetic and questioning. Where Dawkins is filled with smug certitude and self-righteousness, Hume is a little bit charming and self-effacing. Where Dawkins can’t see much good in any religious people, Hume was enamoured with the leading Christians of his time (he used to go to see Whitfield preach, not because he believed what Whitfield was saying, but “because he [Whitfield] does.” Where Dawkins seems to want the quick victory, Hume amassed a pretty comprehensive case against Christianity almost by stealth – with snippets in all sorts of publications that almost needed to be put together posthumously.

This article in the New Yorker comparing the atheists of old with the new atheists has a nice little para on Hume…

“Yet his many writings on religion have a genial and even superficially pious tone. He wanted to convince his religious readers, and recognized that only gentle and reassuring persuasion would work. In a telling passage in the “Dialogues,” Hume has one of his characters remark that a person who openly proclaimed atheism, being guilty of “indiscretion and imprudence,” would not be very formidable.

Hume sprinkled his gunpowder through the pages of the “Dialogues” and left the book primed so that its arguments would, with luck, ignite in his readers’ own minds. And he always offered a way out. In “The Natural History of Religion,” he undermined the idea that there are moral reasons to be religious, but made it sound as if it were still all right to believe in proofs of God’s existence. In an essay about miracles, he undermined the idea that it is ever rational to accept an apparent revelation from God, but made it sound as if it were still all right to have faith. And in the “Dialogues” he undermined proofs of God’s existence, but made it sound as if it were all right to believe on the basis of revelation. As the Cambridge philosopher Edward Craig has put it, Hume never tried to topple all the supporting pillars of religion at once.”

What’s particularly interesting to me, given my recent penchant for all things Ciceroesque, is how much Hume follows Cicero. Deliberately and unabashedly. While there’s a fair bit of overlap in philosophical approach and the questions both men asked, there’s a style comparison as well. It’s, I think, a testimony to the quality of the communication advice and approach to life that Cicero laid out for communicators (believe in your cause, live for it, speak eloquently and passionately, write often, etc). This too, is why I think Dawkins and his ilk, though they persuade some, will eventually fade away into insignificance – their “rhetorical triangle” is not particularly balanced, they’re heavy on the pathos, with not much logos, and not a whole lot of conduct worth imitating or being convinced by…


Philosophies as minimalist posters

Minimalism is one of my favourite design and communication philosophies. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading my blog, I know. But I love simplicity. And clarity. And the clarity that comes from simplicity. Getting complexity into simplicity and maintaining clarity is the holy grail of communication.

Anyway. Here are some posters. About philosophical worldviews. And they’re as minimalist as it gets. And they’re nice. The series is tagged “posters explaining complex philosophical theories through basic shapes.

They’re posters from Genis Carreras, you can check them out/buy them here.


On wikipedia philosophy really is the starting point of knowledge

One of the things I’m increasingly realising as I engage in more critical interaction with people’s thoughts (particularly in scholarship, but also on the Internet and in person) is that it is one’s presuppositions, or philosophical framework, that produces one’s conclusions. It’s true in just about all areas and it’s one of the reasons (essentially operating alongside confirmation bias) that trying to change people’s minds online is entirely pointless.

You can take almost every conclusions somebody draws about the world back to that underlying framework. So you’d expect to see this born out in the way articles are linked in wikipedia (the web of interlinked connections between articles in wikipedia is, in my opinion, the most useful thing about it). And you do. According to this new webapp thingo by Xefer. Which illustrates the truth that all articles will eventually link to Philosophy. Which is kind of like my fairly ancient game 6 Degrees of Wikipedia.

“This sounded like a reasonable assertion, one that makes a certain amount of sense in retrospect: any description of something will typically use more general terms. Following that idea will eventually lead… somewhere.”

Like everything good on the Internet,this concept began in the hovertext of an XKCD comic.

Via FlowingData


New Testament 102: Did Paul have a body image problem

One of the questions from the past exams for this subject was about Paul’s focus on his parousia, now that’s a word that means “bodily presence” and is most often associated with the second coming. But in this case that’s not what it’s all about…

Bruce argues in The Entries and Ethics of Orators and Paul (1 Thessalonians 2:1-12) (PDF) that Paul was perhaps worried that the Thessalonians were drawing parallels between himself and the famous orators, or sophists, of his day, a position he argues that he consciously did not choose in Corinth because the Corinthians were rhetorical fanboys who wanted the apostles to be like the famous orators so that they could copy them and join the club, not like little old Paul who instead of coming to town like a flashy orator knowing everything and delivering extemporary speeches by request, came to town “knowing nothing but Christ crucified.”

The coming or ‘entry’ of an orator to a city could be something of an event in the early empire. For example, Dio Chrysostom records the enthusiastic welcome he received and the attention accorded to him when he visited:

the great cities of the empire—escorted with much enthusiasm (ζηλος) and honour (φιλοτιμία) the recipients being grateful for my presence and begging me to address them and advise them, and flocking about my doors from early dawn.

Bright young up and comers would offer themselves (or be offered by well connected, and well heeled parents) as apprentice sophists (or orators) to these visiting speakers, who would earn a living as teachers of philosophy and public speakers. There were plenty of places to speak on such occasions – theatres, odeions, and bouleterions, as well as public halls and temples were all known to hold such oratory spectacles.

The view from the poor man’s seats in the Odeion of Ephesus

They could attract upwards of one thousand people to hear their opening speech, though if you were rubbish you were said to have only attracted 17.

The speaker, upon entering a town would give the following speeches:

  1. The Dialexis: An introductry speech, warm, flattering, disarming, given sitting down, and the curtain raiser to the main event. only it was the main attraction giving the speech, not an underpaid underling. The Dialexis also served as an opportunity to talk up one’s own renown, in order to whet the crowd’s appetite for the main event.
  2. The Enconium: Probably like the second warm up guy you don’t see on television shows with a studio audience, or the guy who gets cheap pops from a crowd by saying “you’re the best town I’ve ever been in…”
  3. The Topic and the Speech: At this point the audience could call for a speech on whatever they wanted, and the sophist would demonstrate his ability by pulling something together on the spot – kind of like our good improv comics. There were occasionally Dorothy Dixers, where an audience member had been selected to ask for a preferred topic, and while the orator was expected to speak on the spot, he could also elect to come back a day later, fully prepared. Plagiarism was a no no. The speech had to be original, and audiences were pretty cluey and had often heard or read many of the great speeches given elsewhere.

The Rewards: A skilled operator earned the opportunity to teach the children of the rich, to continue making public declamations for a period, or he might be appointed to represent somebody in court. Occasionally, if they were really spectacular, they’d be granted citizenship and appointed as a politician, ambassador or lobbyist. Failing to impress the crowds with the three sequential speeches meant moving on to a new town.

Orators were a pretty corrupt bunch, in it for fame, fortune, and praise. Dio Chrysostom calls the professional orator: “gorgeous peacocks lifted aloft on the wings of the glory and their disciples.” They also had a reputation for deceiving themselves, and others.

Paul on his own “Entry”

One of the cool things in Greece was being able to read the words εχοδος and εισοδος on street signs. They mean exit (like the book of Exodus) and entry respectively. Or literally (kind of) out way and in way. There’s a little Greek primer for you ahead of next week (when I move on to studying Greek).

Bruce argues that some people have been talking up Paul’s entry:

8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God

Bruce points out that Paul’s hearers are reporting on the nature of his arrival, and on the effect this had on the hearers. He then goes on to repeat his message:

“They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.”

And provides a quick evaluation of the mission (chapter 2):

1 You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not without results. 2 We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.

Paul’s measure of success runs counter to that of his sophist contemporaries, he’s not interested in crowds or fame or fortune – but rather in lives turned to God. Paul provides an account of his methods contrary to the methods of the sophists:

3 For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. 4 On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. 5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7 Instead, we were like young children among you.

Paul’s approach, as described here, could hardly be confused with that of the sophist. And it seems he deliberately intended to present his parousia as anti-sophistic.

“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”

Unlike the sophists the Thessalonian culture was used to – Paul was not about personal gain, and he sought to demonstrate that in his physical presence, and time spent with the Thessalonians. His contrast was not with other apostles who may have come in seeking to be financially recompensed for their time, but rather a stark contrast with the trumped up peacocks of his day.

Some words from Bruce:

The εἰσοδος is then a quasi-technical term for Paul in that it refers not only to his actual coming, but also to his professional conduct as a gospel messenger who lives amongst those who accepted his message as the λόγος of God. It is also clear that he describes his entry in an antithetical way. The force of his feelings can be more clearly appreciated from the way the passage is structured with its particles. Succinct negatives precede his positive self-description.

Bruce suggests 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 supports that view:

“Firstly, he emphasizes to the community that ‘and I coming to you, brethren, did not come preaching the mystery or testimony of God with superiority of rhetoric or wisdom… The reason given was that the topic had already been determined by the preacher—Jesus and his crucifixion (2:1).

Such a message required no rhetorical presentation lest, as Paul had previously explained, the cross of the Messiah be emptied of its saving power by means of oratory.

Secondly, he further reflects on the relationship of rhetoric to his presentation. ‘And I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling’—hardly the υπόκρισις recommended by Philodemus in his lengthy discussion in his treatise on the rhetoric of ‘bodily presence’ with gestures and voice. Further, his ‘rhetoric’ and preaching were not undertaken with persuasive rhetorical techniques. On the contrary, his message (λόγος) and preaching (κήρυγμα) were not in the persuasiveness of wisdom. He did not engage in the ‘demonstration’ (αποδείξις) of ‘proofs’ (κήρυγμα) used by the orators in the ‘art of persuasion’ but by that of the Spirit and of power. The purpose of so doing was spelt out by Paul—so that the Christian’s ‘faith’ or ‘proof’ (πίστις) would not rest in the wisdom of men i.e. the orators but in the power of God.”

So, all in all, Bruce persuasively suggests that Paul was deliberately anti-sophistic in his approach to teaching the Thessalonians and the Corinthians. But why?

Interestingly, Paul was writing to the Thessalonians from Corinth, where he was obviously experiencing much the same problems. Perhaps:

He now wished to explain the entry and professional conduct of himself in Thessalonica in terms that would have explicated his enigmatic anti-sophistic stance.

Or, maybe he wanted to avoid going through the same painful experience in Thessalonica that he had been through in Corinth.

Bruce suggests that defining the relationship was important:

Paul had no desire for his relationship to be hindered by the powerful, secular perception of a disciple to his orator or sophist. His second entry to Thessalonica or that of any other Christian teacher must not be identified or compared with orators because of the deleterious effects it would have on relationships and the integrity of the teaching ministry within the Christian community.

Here are some of the other options people had put forward with regards to the issue Paul is writing against in 1 Thessalonians 2:

It is suggested in the light of the above evidence cited from non-biblical sources and the discussion of their resonances with 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12 that there is no need to posit a Pauline ‘defence’ against an attack by Jewish, Gnostic or Gentile Christian teachers as the reason for him writing it. It also rules out the need to cast around Paul in this passage the cloak of the ideal philosopher, whether it be in the Cynic or any other philosophical traditions. Why would Paul wish to identify himself with the philosophers? He believes he has adopted God’s attitude towards the wise, including the philosopher, as he formulated his gospel strategy…

Some have even suggested that Paul was feeling depressed:

“But while scholars debated the exact identity of Paul’s opponents in Thessalonica, they did agree that the charges implied in 1 Thess. 2.1-12 were actual accusations brought against Paul. Thus in the late 1960s Walter Schmithals could say with justification, ‘On this point the exegetes from the time of the Fathers down to the last century have never been in doubt There were, however, two notable exceptions to the widespread consensus about the apologetic character of 2.1-12. The first was Ernst von Dobschutz, who already at the turn of the century anticipated our modem tendency to look for psychological explanations to understand Paul. Von Dobschiitz argued that the defensive character of 2.1-12 arose out of a deep depression on Paul’s part because of the apostle’s great concern that the new Thessalonian converts had negative feelings” Weima, “An Apology for the Apologetic Function of 1 Thessalonians 2.1-12,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, April 1999

Weima’s take on the apostolic parousia of the next slab of Thessalonians is worth reading:

“The recognition of 2.17-3.10 as an ‘apostolic parousia’ also suggests that Paul is indeed concerned in this letter with defending himself. This epistolary convention was first identified and defined by Robert Funk, who observed that Paul frequently attempts to make his presence (hence the term ‘parousia’) felt among his readers in a more authoritative way by three means: by referring either to the writing of the letter itself, to the sending of his emissary, or to his own future visit…”

“The function of the apostolic parousia of I Thessalonians, however, is slightly different than elsewhere in Paul’s letters. For in 2.17-3.10 Paul makes his parousia or ‘presence’ more powerfully felt among the Thessalonians not so much to exert his apostolic authority as to reassure them of his continued love and care for them .2′ The need for Paul to reassure the Thessalonians of this fact was due to his sudden separation from them (2.17-20) and the subsequent persecution (3.1-5) that they had to endure-events that apparently left Paul feeling vulnerable to criticism for his failure thus far to return to them. The apostolic parousia thus serves as an effective literary device by which Paul emphasizes his ‘presence’ among the believers in Thessalonica in such a way that his readers are reassured of his ongoing love for them and any lingering uncertainty over his inability to return is removed. There appears to exist, therefore, a parallel between the function of the apostolic parousia of 2.17-3.10 and the function of the autobiographical section of 2.1-12-a parallel that strengthens the claimed apologetic function of this latter passage.”

A guy named Barclay talks about mirror reading and the parameters for using the “mirror reading” technique:

“Barclay offers the following observations with respect to a responsible use of mirror reading: ‘If a scholar proposes a reconstruction that arises out of the text itself, and if that reconstruction then helps to make sense of difficult statements in the text, we need not reject it on the grounds that “it is just a theory”. On the other hand, the more an interpretation depends on inferences as opposed to explicit propositions in the text, the less persuasive it is. And if some of the inferences are themselves built on inferences, the greater the scholar’s burden to come up with probative data. Moreover, if a historical reconstruction disturbs rather than reinforces the apparent meaning of a passage, a skeptical response is both natural and justified. In other words, theories that ask us to overhaul a generally accepted interpretation may be regarded as less probable than proposals that illumine, nuance, and sustain an exegesis that has stood the test of time.”

Weima discusses the approach some scholars have taken to identifying the opponents Paul is writing against in the passage – and deals at length with “mirror reading” trying to infer from Paul’s arguments what the criticisms he wrote against were… Bruce’s hypothesis sees to be a pretty reasonable explanation of what was in the mirror. Other people have suggested identifying the opponents is an impossible task.

I like Bruce’s conclusion:

Paul as a preacher had reflected not only on the use of classical rhetoric for the presentation of his message and rejected it. He also resolved in his own mind that it was highly inappropriate for the messenger of the gospel to adopt the εἰσοδος conventions and ethics which governed the first century orators and sophists on their initial visit to a city and their long term relationships with its citizens.

So cop that Augustine, you can take your Cicero and stick him somewhere else… The Bruce has spoken.


New Testament 102: What’s going on at the Areopagus (part two)

So Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is an opportunity to introduce a new Gdo to Athens. The God. And it’s not an opportunity he lets slip. He grasps wit with both hands and uses it as a chance to preach the gospel, and in doing so he demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with the philosophy and practices of those he engages with. Bruce says he did this because he had found common ground between inconsistencies in Stoic and Epicurean thought and practice, and similarities between their doctrines and the Old Testament.

“He [Paul] was not borrowing his theology from the philosophical schools for pragmatic purposes.”

Bruce sees his speech before the Areopagus (as do I, as a pretty masterful piece of apologetics, for an article to that effect rather than my notes on his lecture on apologetics see Introducing Athens to God: Paul’s failed apologetic in Acts 17? (PDF), J.D Charles agrees in this article Engaging the (Neo)Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter with Athenian Culture as a Model for Cultural Apologetics (PDF)). Other scholars think it’s an apologetic model Paul tried and gave up, feeling a bit disillusioned (this view was made popular by a guy named Ramsay in St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895)), or that Paul was actually on criminal trial to determine if his teaching was subversive (see this Google Books reference from Stanley Porter). I think Bruce’s reading actually makes the most sense, only Porter’s criminal trial theory explains the presence in the narrative of Acts, the idea that Paul gave up this sort of apologetic falls over a bit when you observe Paul’s continued engagement with Greek philosophy (see his quote from Epimendes in Acts 17:28 and his other Cretans quote in Titus and the Epimenedes Paradox), and Roman law and culture in his subsequent trials. Plus the narrative of Acts 17 reports converts (so it’s hardly a failure). Some suggest Paul’s resolving to know nothing but Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2) was Paul’s general approach to apologetics and not one particular to Corinth in the light of their issues with idolising gospel preachers as though they were first century orators.

Paul’s Apologetic Method (and the introduction of new Gods)

Paul opens with observations about the culture, and at the same time, points out that the God he is talking about is not a new God, but an Old God…

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Then he addresses specific questions the Areopagus sought to answer regarding new gods

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

He begins to look at what divine honours might be appropriate or required for such a God (what do you give the God who has everything?).

26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Then he demonstrates his familiarity with their culture and thinking

28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

This verse actually contains a quote from Epimendes and another from a Aratus, a Stoic philosopher.

Then he again turns to the question of temples and statues

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.

And finally, he turns back to the question of what God requires from converts and the proof of God’s epiphany (in this case Jesus and the Resurrection, the gospel he had been preaching)

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Bruce suggests Paul makes five affirmations about the knowable God – that he made the world, determined the boundaries of the nations, that he can be sought through general revelation, that idols don’t represent him since we are his offspring, and that all people are called to turn to him or face judgment.

The Stoics, in De Natura Deorum had a sequence to be met in the presentation of new gods: first: prove God exists, second: explain their nature, third: show that the world is governed by them, fourth: show that they care for mankind.

Bruce says:

“The summary in Acts 17 assumes their belief in God‘s existences and His role as the creator of the world who is Lord of heaven and earth, (v. 24a). It affirms He gives life and all things to all his creation, (v. 25b). His providential care is intrinsically bound up with the needs of all mankind, (v. 26). Paul developed his theme on the nature of the known God thus.”

Paul also tackles issues of divine providence, from Bruce:

…in the Athenian speech there are important resonances with the Stoic view of providence. This may well have been Paul‘s most important bridge with that segment of his audience. Balbus sets out what he sees as the Stoic thesis that the world is ruled by divine providence…of the gods‘, only familiarity blinds us to nature‘s marvels.‘ For him providential government of the world can be inferred firstly, from divine wisdom and power,  secondly, from the nature of the world, thirdly from a detailed review of the wonders of nature,  and fourthly from the care of man.

Also, Bruce points out that Paul’s use of the singular “God” rather than “gods” was right down the alley of the Stoics and Epicureans – and elements of his speech to the Areopagus directly attack their understanding of theology.

The Stoics and Epicureans would have had no difficulty with the use of the singular ‘god’, for in one sentence they used the singular and plural interchangeably. For example, Diogenes Laertius speaks of ‘worshippers of god’ as those who ‘have acquaintance with the rites of the gods’ and who know ‘how to serve the gods’.

Much of Paul’s argument also plays on tensions between Stoic and Epicurean thought, in the same way that his argument before the Pharisees and the Sadducees played on tensions between those two groups.

Epicureans believed that God was living, immortal, and blessed – terminology Paul often uses to describe God in his letters. The Epicureans would have found common ground on that point, and further on the point that God could be discovered (and that an unknown God could be made known) because they believed God was knowable and clear to all. They also, importantly, dismissed the idea of God(s) living in temples – they didn’t like anything that looked like superstition, and both agreed that God had no need for human resources.

But the notion of an afterlife was completely foreign to Epicurus (the founder of the Epicureans) who said:

“Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling and that which has no feelings is nothing to us”

Which is probably why the crowd reacted like they did when Paul mentioned the resurrection (in much the same way that the Sadducees reacted in his audience with the Jews).

Bruce thinks Paul was actually calling the Stoics and Epicureans out on social compromise on their philosophies – and offering a better way.

“The Stoic self-contradiction, as Plutarch pointed out, was that they  attend the mysteries in the temples, go up to the Acropolis, do reverence to statues, and place wreaths upon the shrines, though these were the works of builders and mechanics”

Epicurus himself had believed that popular piety was not correct—‘For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions,‘

Some final thoughts from Bruce:

“Stoicism and Epicureanism in the imperial period had to endorse religious pluralism if they were to maintain their following, given participation in the imperial cult as one of the ways of affirming their loyalty to the empire.”

“No dialogue can be called  Christian‘ that does not possess the five elements expressed in Acts 17. So Paul‘s sermon in Athens was highly pleasing to Almighty God and these essential elements are to be repeated if we are to win the hearts and the minds of our contemporaries who need to believe the gospel.”

J.D Charles agrees (though he spends his time pondering the philosophical nature of Athens):

“Summing up Paul’s rhetorical strategy in Athens, we may note that the Apostle was knowledgeable, dialectical, well-read, relevant, and rhetorically skillful. What particularly strikes the reader is his ability to accommodate himself to the knowledge-base of most Athenians. Viewing Paul’s encounter with Athenian culture as such, we may conclude that his ministry was not a “failure.” Nor is it necessary to assume that his not-too-distant reflections about the power of the cross, recorded in 1 Corinthians 1–2, were penned with a wrong apologetic model (i.e., Athens) in mind.
To the contrary, a more accurate assessment of Paul’s ministry in Athens may be summed up by his own testimony to the Corinthians: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more. To the Jews I became a Jew … ; to those without the law, I became like those without the law … I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:19–22).”

Pooh philosophy

If comic books don’t strike you as great fodder for philosophy and ethics lessons (and that post had a comment from the author who wrote Batman and Philosophy and is writing Spiderman and Philosophy (which was pretty cool)) then perhaps Pooh and Philosophy is more your thing. This is from a list of philosophy books for children.

“Plot: Drawing on readers’ assumed familiarity with this beloved cast of characters, lead by none other than Winnie the Pooh, Hoff demonstrates the basics of philosophical Taoism by making examples of the One-Hundred Acre Woods residents. Each character embodies some basic principle of Taoism. Pooh is portrayed as the Uncarved Block with innate powers due to his natural and unspoiled simplicity. The rest of the crew is also interpreted per Tao principle – for example, Knowledge for the sake of Appearing Wise in Owl’s case.”

Does skepticism neccessitate atheism?

I am a skeptic. Proudly. I treat all truth claims with an element of distrust – and many with disdain. But I am also a Christian. And by definition a theist, and a believer in the supernatural. My skepticism extends to all other religious claims – and many claims made by subsets of Christianity. What the relationship is between Christian belief and belief in the realm of ghosts, spiritual warfare and other supernatural issues is a matter for another post. Maybe.

I think I might have previously linked to this Clive James piece on the value of skepticism – if not, I apologise. It’s mostly about climate change skepticism, though a little bit about golf ball chips (a phenomena that occurs if you have a golf course next to a potato farm).

Skepticism is great – but if you hold onto it counter to the evidence you’re not a skeptic – you’re an idiot.

The golf-ball crisp might look like a crisp, and in a moment of delusion it might taste like a crisp, and you might even swallow the whole thing, rather proud of the strength it took to chew. But if there is a weird aftertaste, it might be time to ask yourself if you have not put too much value on your own opinion. The other way of saying “What do I know?” is “What do I know?” .

Which rather tangentially brings me to the purpose of this rant. I read this article on the Friendly Atheist about the relationship between skepticism and atheism – obviously they’re linked… it’s not rocket science to suggest that most atheists are skeptics. It comes with the territory. But do all skeptics have to be atheists?

A series of posts around the atheist blogosphere suggested that the two are inextricably linked – that atheism is a logical by product of skepticism.

It started with a speech at a camp for skeptics…the speaker then had to defend his claim from some criticism…

But because I have yet to see good evidence — philosophical, scientific, or otherwise — to support religious claims, I live under the assumption there is not a god or gods above,  making me an atheist. I am still open to evidence, just with rigorous philosophical and scientific standards. A perfect example to sum up the co-existence of these labels comes from what Jacob posted in the comments to his piece. “You ask if I am agnostic about Zeus. Yes. Fairies. Yes.” But, then, Jacob is also an aZeusist, and an afairist. That is, he lives without belief in Zeus or fairies.

The problem with all these assertions – and in fact every skeptical assertion – is that it is based on one’s personal standard of evidence. Which is a personal decision. And it should be. If you want to cover your eyes, block your ears and bury your head in the sand to avoid any “evidence” that may change your opinion on any matter – then that is your choice. And I will laugh at love you even if you are wrong.

So, in the post on the Friendly Atheist the writer made this rather bold claim…

I’ll use ’skepticism’ to mean the attitude that one should scale confidence in a belief to match the evidence, and ‘atheism’ to mean the lack of belief in a god. With these definitions, the two are clearly related.

Here’s another quote from that piece.

If a person is skeptical, we expect them to embrace atheism because that’s where the evidence leads.

Only when you set fairly narrow parameters for “evidence”… I think by “evidence” you mean that’s where an understanding of the world based on scientific naturalism leads.

For some of us scientific naturalism is a good starting point, but not an end point.

Since the principle of skepticism requires religion to be treated with scrutiny, how should the movement deal with the fact that scrutiny leads to atheism?

What this post is actually saying – and the root of the problem – is that these atheists, who are skeptics, have found the evidence wanting when it comes to the question of God – but not all skeptics have put the same faith in their particular evidential methodology.

Here’s how I think those quotes could have been more honestly framed – from a skeptical standpoint – I’ll bold my changes.

If a person is skeptical, I expect them to embrace atheism because that’s where I think the evidence leads them.

Since the principle of skepticism requires religion to be treated with scrutiny, how should I deal with my opinion that scrutiny leads to atheism?

Note the similarity to the quote from Clive James’ piece – what do I know? That’s the question that should be being asked in this case. Skepticism is a subjective philosophical position that requires convincing evidence – not some sort of objective standard.

For me, I am a skeptic when it comes to scientific naturalism’s ability to answer all of life’s questions, and I am convinced by the evidence of God’s word, my observations of human nature, and my experience as a believer.

Why I’m not an Atheist #1 – Because my Parents weren’t

I put this as the first reason for not being an atheist, not because itʼs most important, or because it  is representative of how someone stays out of atheism — itʼs not. But because for many atheists this is the great explanatory factor behind my theism.

Only a fool would deny the influence of parents and society. Itʼs a helpful analysis of the way in which we come to believe the things that we believe — the sociology of knowledge.

But is that sufficient to sink my “non-atheism” right in the beginning?

Well that would only be the case if in fact other forms of knowledge were free from the same kind of sociology. But all knowledge is sociological to one degree or another. Only a  fool would say that every thought he ever had, heʼd come up with himself. Most of our  thoughts come from others. We all belong to a community of one sort or another that reinforces the plausibility of some beliefs  and discourages other kinds of beliefs.

The atheist PR machine likes to talk as if itʼs the exception — it talks as if atheism is the conviction one arrives at when you start thinking for yourself.

But the more I look at atheism, the more it seems to me that there are plenty of others to help you do your thinking. Richard Dawkins writes about the aim of his book like this:

“My dream is that this book may help people to come out. Exactly as in the case of the gay movement, the more people come out, the easier it will be for others to join them. There may be a critical mass for the initiation of a chain reaction.”

Dawkins aim is not simply to present the arguments, and let the arguments speak for themselves. Rather his aim is, one might say, a sociological one — he hopes to give people courage to own their convictions through the knowledge that there are others who share them. And through that, others might be encouraged to join the thronging crowd.

But Dawkins is not being deceptive. Itʼs the way all human knowledge works. We are not  just rational beings — we are also relational beings, who depend on each other for all sorts of things, knowledge included. The fact that I depend on something for my knowledge does not make me irrational, it makes me human.

I talk to a lot of university students who are atheist or agnostic, who all use the same kind  of arguments. Did they all really, somehow astonishingly, come up with the same arguments independent of each other? No, the majority have just bought into intellectual trends of the day — they have been ʻindoctrinatedʼ, and most donʼt have the sense to see it. (They really think they think for themselves!) They disbelieve, in other words, because they were born in the West! If theyʼd been born in Iran, odds are, they would believe something completely different.

Luckily for atheists, their beliefs might still be true irrespective of the fact that they got them from their culture — but that would need to be demonstrated in some other way. Which is how I treat my Christian convictions — theyʼre not true because my parents believed them, but neither are they deceptive just for that reason either.

Is pragmatism a dirty word?

It seems pragmatism is on the nose. I’ve read a few posts around the Christian blogosphere that bag out a “pragmatic” approach to ministry.

Why is this? Am I missing something? I would have thought a ministry based on the ability to know and proclaim an absolute truth, where the methodology of communication is based roughly on “that which works” was both right and Biblical – those would seem to be key areas of the pragmatic school of thought – and yet, we seem to be so keen for our ministries not to be ego boosting that we’re fleeing the notion of pragmatism having a bearing on what we do.

Didn’t God give us the innate ability to strategise, plan for the future, and gifts to equip us for ministry. Shouldn’t we work with these gifts in a way that maximises our return (while being faithful to other imperatives – like not being proud etc). Does pragmatism necessarily lead to people planting churches with big screen video links?

This whole anti-pragmatism thing is strange to me. Perhaps I’m getting the wrong end of the stick… your thoughts? 

Bedroom philosophers

I am loathe to post links to sites I haven’t read or explored in depth just in case their content is dodgy and gets me in trouble.

But this site – Squashed Philosophers – seems safe, insomuch as it is a site full of condensed synopses of philosophical thinking throughout human history. Obviously that means it’s littered with wrong thinking – but it’s wrong thinking that might explain a lot.

Anyway, interesting reading – each philosopher is condensed into a “half hour read” – and this is just a glorified bookmark so I can find it later.

Perfect for a bit of pre-sleep reading.

Incidentally the name of this post is a reference to the artist behind what I think is the best novelty song ever written… I’m so postmodern (lyrics).


From the desk of: other people

One of the things I really enjoy about blogs is being able to draw on the collective wisdom of people trailblazing a path that we plan to head down in the not too distant future. At the moment I’m enjoying a bunch of blogs from students currently studying at theological college.

I’ve subscribed to Bathgates.net for quite a while because Dan (who doesn’t blog enough) kept sharing really interestng posts from it via google reader. I like it’s style – that is to say I really like Ben’s style. He’s got a great post at the moment full of tip for people embarking on theological study. It’s well worth a read. One of the sad things about using a RSS reader to get all your content is that you lose the really nice design work people have done on their blogs.

Another absolutely superb design (it really is stunning and functional) – matched by great content and the longest,  most philosophically deep “about me” page I’ve ever read – can be found at Dan Anderson’s papermind – I know Dan in real life (or IRL for you internet people). He’s a top bloke and is currently considering the purpose of studying  philosophy while studying theology. The discussion is written in a style somewhat representative of Sophie’s Word – although the protagonists are a pair of slightly distracted philosophers. Worth a look thus far. Dan was also kind enough to add my blog to his blog roll so I’m responding in kind with this little plug. Did I mention that I really like his design? I do. WordPress is aesthetically quite pleasing.