In Which Stephen Fry Steps In It

If you would be so kind, I would like to ask you to view this brief bit of blasphemous cheek. It’ll just take a few minutes.

Now then, all set? Let’s break this down into two basic parts. The first part is that Stephen Fry is given a thought experiment, and we should take a moment to see how he thinks in thought experiments. He doesn’t believe in God, but he is nevertheless asked a “what if.” What if you were wrong, the questioner asks, and the whole thing turns out to be true, with you finding yourself in a conversation with God at the Pearly Gates. Fry takes that occasion to launch into his diatribe. Bone cancer in children? What’s with that?

But I want to note something really strange about this set up. When God and Fry take their places as these disputants, Fry undertakes to argue morality with Him. And in order to argue this way, he has to assume — and most certainly does assume — that there is a moral standard that overarches the two of them, and which is equally binding on both of them.

But what is that standard? Where did it come from? How does it come to be binding on both of them? In order for the standard to be authoritative, there must be an authority, correct? Who is that authority?

If the standard arises from within Fry, then why should it be in any way obligatory for God? That standard fails to overarch the two, so why the indignation? If the standard arises from within God, and yet God is inexplicably a hypocrite, not living up to His own standards, then the question becomes why the standard continues to bind God after He has abandoned it. Suppose God just changed His mind. Why should Fry be indignant?

Or, taking another option, Fry could think, should think, that since there is a standard that overarches the two of us here, then I must have gotten into an argument with a demiurge porter down at one of the lower pearlies. I must hasten to find the Most High God, the source of all that is moral and true and right. I must find Him because He alone is worthy of worship. He alone is the grounded source of my indignation. Funny — that’s not how this thought experiment goes.

After unloading his indignation on the questioner — who was clearly unaccustomed to blasphemy — Fry then coyly says that it is best to dispense with believing in this being’s existence altogether. But notice what happens now.

There is no God. What about bone cancer in children now? What about insects that make children blind now? You have abandoned God for the sake of the children, but for God’s sake, what does this do to the children? You cared about them a lot just a few minutes ago. Even though you have dispensed with God, you must still answer the questions you have posed. All right. There is no God. You have persuaded us. What is bone cancer in children? What’s that about? Please speak into the microphone.

The cosmic chaos around us doesn’t care what happens to children. All of that is just matter in motion. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it feels good, but there is nothing out of the ordinary here. There is nothing to object to, no reason to be indignant. Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky.

There is one step more . . . since we cannot change the inexorable law that we become like what we worship, and since Fry’s ultimate reality is a blind, impersonal, godless, materialist machine that grinds people up, not caring at all, indignant with nothing, let us take a look at the behavior of the kind of secularist society that Fry champions. We have rejected the God who decreed the existence of insects that eat children’s eyes, thus blinding them. We have done this so that we might become a pro-choice society, so that we tax-paying grown-ups might all become the insects that eat children’s eyes.

Stephen Fry has posed some questions that I believe have some straight-forward answers. I would like to hereby extend a cordial invitation to meet together with him in order to debate them in greater detail. I believe that we could put together an event that put the spotlight on these questions, along with our respective answers.

The Nature of Natural Law

Yesterday I came home from the Auburn Avenue conference for pastors, which is always a grand time. One thing that happened there was this. During his talk, Jim Jordan spent some time castigating the idea of natural law, and during the Q&A I was asked about it, because I have been making friendly noises about natural law in my blog posts for a while. Am I sidling away from Van Til, what about all my friends, what gives, etc.? I answered briefly there, but have been mulling over the whole topic some more, and wanted to add a few things.

My interest in natural law comes down to one thing — which is that I want us to confess the universal authority of Jesus Christ over everyone and all things.

Now I grant that there is a form of natural law thinking that does not want to do this at all. But there is a rejection of natural law thinking that doesn’t want to do it either, and I am wanting to avoid both of those problems. Here is how it works.

When natural law theory goes bad, we get enough morality from a generic deity to flatter us, and never enough morality to frighten us. This kind of natural law covers everything, but it is thin and diaphanous. What we wind up with is not the majestic God of Scripture, but rather an Addisonian milksop. Whatever happens, you never get to the crown rights of King Jesus. So we shouldn’t want anything to do with putting this kind of paint thinner into our religion.

But rejection of natural law can wind up doing the same thing, but by a different route. The epistemological move made by the theological liberals of several generations back, and which was ably dissected by Bartley in his Retreat to Commitment, is a move that I see many of our Reformed contemporaries contemplating — and some of them are doing more than contemplating it. That move is to keep the claims for Christ “thick,” but to limit them in extent, keeping them within the confines of the church. Since there are areas of life where the authority of the Bible is not recognized, we are urged to be good with that. Our convictions rest on top of our faith community, like a brick, but there is a lot of territory out there that is not covered.

If It Were a Pancake

Steve McSwain, “Author, Speaker, Thought Leader, Spiritual Teacher,” has written a piece over at HuffPo that requires some sort of response. From the rigor of argument displayed in his piece, one guess could be that he is most likely a mentor of spiritual formation at a place somewhere in LA with a name something like Kimberly’s Nail Salon, with his office just off the room full of tanning beds.

According to McSwain, Christian need to cool it with the following six dogmas that are just embarrassing the heck out of us urbane Christians. “Christians must stop saying the following things.” Okay, get your legal pads and pens out! Take good notes — it is up to us to stop humiliating the sophisticati. This is no small task, for they humiliate easy.

“1. The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God.”

We should stop saying this because the Bible is just riddled with errors. There is a name for people like this in the Bible, but unfortunately for McSwain, that name is “unbeliever.”

He says “no matter what translation you favor, the Bible is replete with errors.” Since he concludes this section with a resounding statement about how we don’t have a right to our own facts, it would have been swell if he had appealed to some. Imagine a defense attorney standing up and saying, “I do not think my client should be convicted. The prosecutor’s case was riddled with errors. The defense rests, your honor.”

Well, okay.  One scarcely knows how to engage.

“2. We just believe the Bible.”

No, not at all, he responds in soothing, dulcet, pomo tones. What you believe is your interpretation of the Bible. Sure thing. I also believe my interpretation of articles I read at HuffPo. I also see things with my eyeballs. Is there supposed to be a difficulty?

He points to the fact that there are so many differing interpretations, nudging us to respond to this with “oh, I give up then.” But we ought to respond with “I wonder which one is right? or if any of them are?”

Imagine him talking to a cancer researcher this way. “Don’t you realize that every last approach to this disease in the history of the world has been ineffectual? Every attempt to cure cancer to this point has failed. What do think you are trying to accomplish?”

Thomas Edison once said he did not discover how to make a light bulb, but rather discovered 10,000 ways how to not make one. But he is a great man, and not at all like those crazies who think there is a right way to read a text and 10,000 ways to not read it. Rubes.

Debate As a Christian Duty

For many Christians, it seems a reasonable question to ask whether it is profitable for us to engage in public debates at all. Whoever changed his mind because of some public argument? Why wrangle about words? Logomachies just make my head hurt.

In contrast to this, I want to argue that such a quietist position is not only inconsistent with the teaching of Scriptures, but runs directly contrary to it. We are called to speak with unbelievers in the public square, and we are to do so in a way that includes answering their objections. We are called to prevail in such discussions (in a particular way). When we do this right, what is happening is public debate, the kind that can be very helpful.

But before making the case for this, it should be said at the outset that those who want to avoid “unseemly spectacles for Jesus” do have a point. There are some debates that are no good at all, and the Bible tells us expressly to avoid them. But when the Scriptures tell us not to lose our battles in a particular way, we should not infer from this an imaginary duty to avoid fighting those battles at all.

That said, let me begin by noting a few places where Christians are told not to engage in verbal free-for-alls. While we are not to avoid all debates, we are to avoid some debates.

“To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Tit. 3:2-3).

We are not to be “brawlers.”

Nothing Worse Than an Analytic Fairy

Yesterday I was having a good discussion on apologetics with my friend Will Little, and the discussion dislodged in me a few thoughts on the subject that I thought would be good to note here.

We were talking about presuppositionalism. I think it is crucial for us to distinguish between presuppositionalism as a foundation for the apologist, and presuppositionalism as a subject that the apologist will broach with the unbeliever. There are times when it will be both, but those times are rarer than apologists who are trained Van Til ninjas might think.

If the point is to win men, and not arguments, then we have to understand where the actual hang-up is with that unbeliever. The fact that we understand the foundational issues does not mean that he does, and what good does it do to bounce arguments off his forehead, which then just lie on the floor unheard?

At the same time, when someone observes that rigorous analytic philosophy leaves a pomo-hipster with marriage problems unmoved, the temptation is then to think that there is something wrong with the rigorous reasoning. No, there is nothing wrong with it, but the hard cold concrete of my presuppositions might need to stay in the basement, holding the house up, while my wife prepares chicken enchiladas for the family and we invite the troubled couple over. The foundation holds the kitchen up, and I can cheerfully grant that the unbeliever was greatly moved by the fellowship around the table without concluding that we shouldn’t have spent all that money on the foundation walls. We can always explain the connection to him later.

There It Is

As you may have surmised, this concludes my old posts from the Vision 20/20 list discussion of a few years back. They are now accessible in the archives of this blog, which was the point.

Bowing Out

Apologetics in the Void” are repostings from an on-going electronic discussion and debate I had some time ago with members of our local community, whose names I have changed. The list serve is called Vision 20/20, and hence the name “visionaries.” Reading just these posts probably feels like listening to one half of a phone conversation, but I don’t feel at liberty to publish what others have written. But I have been editing these posts (lightly) with intelligibility in mind.

Visionaries,

As I indicated earlier, I am unsubscribing from this list in just a few minutes. If I may be allowed just a few comments as I go, I would appreciate it. Four things.

First, I want to thank everyone from this list who came to the meeting last night. I was glad to meet a number of you, and appreciated the opportunity to answer all the questions that we were able to get to. Thank you.

Second, I appreciate those who have asked me to stay on the list. While I still think I need to go, I am not becoming a recluse, or going away mad. As we emphasized at the meeting last night, we live here, and we know we have civic responsibilities related to that. This departure is part of that responsibility. Since Vision 20/20 is not a moderated list, and since there is something about my boyish smile that whips a certain kind of person into a froth, I think it is only reasonable for me to do something else for a while. Because the People of the Clenched Jaw, not to mention the People of Exuberant Slander, cannot be made to go, I think it only reasonable for the person who sets them off to do so voluntarily. In other words, my absence will likely mean the absence of some others as well. And Scripture says, “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth. As coals are to burning coals, and wood to fire; so is a contentious man to kindle strife. The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” (Prov. 26:20-22).

Third, if any issue comes up related to this fracas that absolutely demands a response from us, our session of elders still has a committee that could supply any necessary answers in a timely way. The overall situation in Moscow remains much as it was, with a few key misunderstandings removed. For many of us, we have moved to understanding our disagreements, which certainly remain. There will be other debates, other situations, and (I hope) other conversations such as many of us had last night. But as far as I am concerned, in this slavery discussion, you can deal me out not.

And last, please permit a generic pastoral warning against the corrosive effects of bitterness. As I have counseled many over the years with regard to this problem, I have seen that bitterness never stays put. The author of Hebrews put it this way: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled” (Heb. 12:14-15). Bitterness is a root, and roots gather nutrients. And if bitterness is nurtured and tolerated in any area, it grows until the point when it springs up and defiles many. Those “many” may not be the Evil Others who set you off in the first place — too often the many who are defiled by it are those who are closest to you. Bitterness is a true corrosive, and Jesus Christ offers a way out of that bondage through the grace of God.

So if you will excuse me, I am heading off to prepare for the celebration of the Incarnation. God made flesh in a virgin’s womb, and nothing will ever be the same again. Merry Christmas.

Cordially,

Avoiding the Shrill

Apologetics in the Void” are repostings from an on-going electronic discussion and debate I had some time ago with members of our local community, whose names I have changed. The list serve is called Vision 20/20, and hence the name “visionaries.” Reading just these posts probably feels like listening to one half of a phone conversation, but I don’t feel at liberty to publish what others have written. But I have been editing these posts (lightly) with intelligibility in mind.

Visionaries,

The agenda of the town hall meeting tonight will be determined by those who attend and ask the questions. The questions will be asked aloud, not written, and the people who ask the questions will have reasonable opportunity for follow-up. The jury on whether this has happened or not will be those who attend, and not those who have no need to attend because of their telepathic gifts.

At the same time, we intend to give the floor to a wide range of questioners, and this means that we will regularly move from one questioner to another. Again, the judge of whether we are doing this fairly and honestly will be the people in attendance. We want to give priority to those who are not in our church, and we want to prioritize how we address the questions as well. This means that we will want to sort questions and answers as they have related to the controversy. “What is our actual position on slavery? Is this consistent with the booklet? Why did the Christ Church elders respond with the display ads in the newspaper the way they did?” When those are covered, we can move on to other questions if we have time.

We are trying to answer the questions that the community has. This is not the same thing as answering the questions that could be asked by a hostile few, those who have gotten a strange mix of bitterness, slanders, hostility, and lies wound tight around their axle. I do not believe that such people will be satisfied (if they come), but I do believe that the average, interested resident of Moscow who comes will be able to hear what we have been saying. Many will leave differing with us, but what they differ with will at least be an honest representation of our views.

I know that Duance will take my reference above to “telepathic gifts” and “wound tight around their axle” as acts of rudeness, unbecoming to a Christian minister. But the apostle Peter tells us not to return evil for evil, and I have diligently sought to avoid every form of railing or invective in my responses during this controversy. That is not the same as avoiding a (biblical) approach to polemics and humor, which I have tried hard to practice. I do employ such expressions as those above, because I want to avoid the besetting sin of cultural conservatives in public debate, which is the besetting sin of Shrillness. I have been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from Duance for a goodish bit of time now, and do not ever want to be guilty of the kind of irrational crudeness which he routinely displays. That is my goal, and I have good friends who would take me aside to talk about it if I wavered from it.

That said, men like Duance and Nick need to understand that we are not taking their questions seriously precisely because we take the questions of the responsible community of Moscow seriously. There are many in Moscow who are not associated with us in any way, who have honest questions about us, and who are ill-served by those questions are the Platonic form of Shrill. “Doug Wilson, have you closed down your child abuse factory and the meth lab behind it? Yes or no?”

Cordially,