Monday, June 25, 2012

Both sides now...

"Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, I've looked at cloud that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now,

From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall.
I really don't know clouds at all."

(Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now)
I've been meaning to write this post for a while. (Indeed, I've been writing and rewriting bits of it, on and off, for a while too, sorry if it seems disjointed.) More or less to explain what's going on in my head for the benefit of regular readers who may think I've lost the plot recently. In some sense this is my 'apologia'. It'll be a long read.

For the past 20 years or so I've been a self-confessed evangelical Christian. Perhaps not always very good at the actual evangelism thing, sometimes not even good at the Christian thing, but there you go. Nobody's perfect.

When you're inside 'evangelical Christianity', particularly the Scripture Union (SU) / Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) variety of it that I was part of in my formative years, one of the things that is drummed into you is that you need to read 'sound' books and avoid reading 'unsound' ones. Perhaps the sound/unsound terminology has dropped from culture over the past couple of decades, but that was the gist of it in the early 90s. Reading 'sound' material (in addition to your bible, of course) will build you up in your faith, reading 'unsound' material will lead you to "backslide". There is no worse word for an evangelical than "backslider". Eeeek.

So I suppose this is where things started to go wrong for me (from an evangelical perspective) - I read some books that were not sound.

It started for me in 1994 when I read a book called 'The Unauthorized Version' which I found in the religion section of my local library. I was unemployed at the time and had plenty of time to read this big book. This book looks at the old testament (for the most part) and asks, quite simply, are the stories in it true? Before reading this book I had never seriously considered that they were anything but true. And yet here was what appeared to be good, solid scholarship demonstrating that some of the stories in there are myths and showing how some of the stories are at odds with what we know from archeology and secular histories of the same times and places.

I don't intend to go into all the 'unsound' books I've read over the past couple of decades, but suffice it to say I've read quite a few. Of course, I should also state that I've read a good many 'sound' books in the same time too. The thing is, in recent years I've begun to have serious issues with the unstated presuppositions of the sound books. Its only by reading the unsound ones that you realise the failings of the sound ones. In other words, if I'd been a good evangelical and had never read the unsound stuff, I'd likely have remained a good evangelical to this day.

But, of course, once Pandora's box is opened, you can't shut it again, and evangelical Christianity (as an ensemble, not necessarily individuals in it) knows this, and tries to prevent you from reading unsound or unorthodox things.

While much of the unsound material out there may be flawed, biased, fraudulent, or downright wrong, not all of it is. Some of it contains truth. A great man once said that 'the truth will set you free' - but set you free from what? And what great man was it that said it?

I've looked at evangelical Christianity from both sides now
from sound and unsound and still somehow
its evangelical Christianity's illusions I recall

I really don't know evangelical Christianity at all...

That's the problem. As another great man (Socrates, I think) said: "The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know" - when you explore the issues around Christian belief, you find out that there is no good reason for believing many of the things that once you believed strongly in. By reading a lot of stuff and learning a lot, my faith is weakened and my beliefs became less certain.

Fundamentally, evangelical Christianity knows that this will happen if you read some of the non-approved materials, which is why it tries to stop you reading them. That's OK, as far as I am concerned, if its preventing you from reading deceptive material, but it also tries to prevent you from reading the truth as well, and I have big issues with that. I would rather know the truth and be cast out, than conform by believing a lie.

So what truth and what lies am I talking about? Well, how about this one for starters:

The bible is not inerrant. Indeed, it is quite clearly errant, biased in parts, and possibly entirely made up in other parts.

I discovered this truth many years ago, but never really considered the full implications of it until recently. As I've said in other posts on this blog, the problem boils down to how to distinguish the 'inspired' bits of the bible from the non-inspired bits. There is no reliable method, so all Christian denominations basically end up picking their favourite bits and disregarding (or explaining away) the bits they don't like.

The above is a big claim, so I'd better offer some evidence in support of this. The evidence I present is the four canonical gospels themselves. They disagree. They disagree in major ways. Fundamentally, they disagree on who Jesus even is. OK, they may all use the terminology 'Son of God', but they actually disagree on what it means. If you read the gospels from within an evangelical perspective, you fundamentally assume that they must agree, so you will find ways of explaining the differences away. If you read them from an outsider's perspective, you will see that they don't agree. Indeed, the reason there is more than one of them is that the writers of the later gospels disagreed with what the writers of the earlier ones wrote and set out to correct them.

Look at the opening verses of Luke (1v1-4):
"Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we had been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. Honorable Theophilus, I have done this to let you know the truth about what you have heard."
Note the tone of this: Many people tried to tell the story. I did a careful study. I tell you exactly what happened. So you know the truth. The clear implication of this is that Luke (or whoever wrote this anonymous gospel) had access to at least two older gospels (certainly Mark, possibly Matthew as well, maybe others we don't know), but thought they were imperfect, careless, inexact and containing untruths. He also implies that the original (i.e. pre-Lukan) gospels were not eyewitness accounts. We know he used Mark, sometimes using chunks of text without changing them, sometimes modifying them slightly, sometimes completely rewriting them, sometimes even changing the entire sense of the passage, sometimes omitting bits and frequently adding bits that Mark didn't have.

If Luke wrote an inspired and inerrant gospel, then Mark did not. Or vice versa.

Its easier to believe - and I would now say that the evidence suggests - that both these gospels are merely human attempts to tell a story. But both tell stories with personal biases and how can we break through these to see how much truth about Jesus lies behind them?

I've looked at the bible from both sides now,
from believing and critical points of view and still somehow
its the bible's illusions I recall
I really don't know the bible at all...

Faced with just the evidence of the four canonical gospels themselves, we find that it is actually very hard to conclude anything about Jesus whatsoever. Most scholars would point to Jesus's baptism with John and his crucifixion as two fixed points in his life which are beyond doubt, but when you put the four gospel stories up against each other, even these two 'facts' come into question.

Mark has Jesus coming to John to be baptised as a sign of his repentance, and the story conveys that the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus (for the first time?), marking the start of his ministry. It appears that Mark used the story of Jesus baptism as a way to start the story off, to explain how the Spirit of God came to be in Jesus.

Matthew and Luke disagree with Mark here, they take Jesus filling with the Spirit back to his birth or conception, but retain the baptism story (perhaps because it was a well known story) and modify it to make it clear that Jesus didn't need to repent of anything.

John changes it so much that Jesus actually doesn't get baptised by John at all. (Read it again if you doubt that).

So this is a story which changes in the telling, the main point of the story in Mark is lost in the later tellings, and the main event in the story vanishes in the fourth retelling. Given that, it looks like the three later tellings are somewhat dependent on the first, which was included for dramatic effect. Can we be sure that this contains history?

The other point of consensus is that Jesus was crucified ("under Pontius Pilate"), but look again at the four tellings of this story. All the details in the first telling (Mark) come from the psalms (mostly number 22), this doesn't appear to be an eyewitness account, it appears to be someone attempting to tell the story of a death about which he knows next to nothing. Matthew and Luke pretty much copy Mark, while adding in extra details which don't agree with each other and also don't sound like the authors have access to any eyewitness testimony. The fourth gospel goes as far as to invent a character in the story whose very presence is completely denied by the other three gospels.

So did the crucifixion happen? Well, it might have done, but the four accounts we have are very shaky ground upon which to try and base a historical reconstruction.

I've recently read (parts of) a book called "The Christ myth theory and its problems" by Robert M. Price. One of the longest sections in the book shows how virtually every episode in each of the gospels has a parallel in the Old Testament. Price sets out to demonstrate that everything in the gospels could have been constructed entirely on the basis of the OT stories without any need for an actual historical Jesus. I'm not sure I agree entirely with this theory, but it certainly does appear that many of the stories of things that Jesus allegedly did were based on things from the OT. Again, if that's the case, how do we distinguish the 'true' history of the 'real' Jesus from the myths based on the older stories of Elijah, etc.? We have no way of distinguishing the two.

I think I'm now at the point where I have to accept that some, at least, of the stories about Jesus are mythical in origin. I don't necessarily think that they are all mythical and there is no historical kernel there, but I can see no method of separating the truth from the myth. If there was a real historical character, who may or may not have been named Jesus ("saviour"), he is probably forever lost under the many strata of myths which have been deposited upon him.

I've looked at Jesus from both sides now
from man and myth, and still somehow
its Christ's illusions I recall
I really don't know Jesus at all...

It appears (to me, at least) as if the character of Jesus, as presented in the bible, entirely hides the 'real Jesus' of history to the extent that we can never know him. Critical study of the gospels makes it appear unlikely that the real Jesus of history was anything other than a charismatic, but entirely human, teacher and preacher. Or possibly even a revolutionary freedom fighter, but not a God, or the son of a God. But there is another Jesus to consider - the Jesus of faith, the Jesus that contemporary Christians believe to be in a 'personal relationship' with them. From observation, this Jesus is generally an extrapolation from the character presented in the bible, combined with inferences from Christian experience. So the question for me is does this composite 'Jesus of Faith' actually exist? The biggest issue I've faced over the past year or so of trying to reconcile my thoughts on Jesus and God is this:

Even though the bible gives a flawed and man-made picture of God and Jesus, this doesn't mean there is no God at all. If there is a real God behind the man-made facade, what is he like?

You see, while I can be convinced that I have believed flawed and incorrect things about God and Jesus, it is hard to reconcile my past experiences (and the experiences of others) with non-theistic worldviews. Not that I've had a great many 'supernatural' experiences, although people I know and reasonably trust claim to have had greater experiences than mine.

In my experience, there is something transcendent that can be experienced in times of worship. I have had what I once considered to be answered prayers. I have met people who seem to have been healed in inexplicable ways (legs growing longer in a matter of moments, eye cataracts vanishing instantly with prayer, etc.). People from my church are involved in a weekly healing 'on the streets' ministry, and every few weeks they come back with stories of something 'miraculous' having happened. I have no reason to doubt these claims. And yet, I do doubt the mechanism behind the apparent healings.

If Christ is mostly myth and is not God, yet someone seems to answer some prayers, then something 'supernatural' may be going on, but it might not be Christ.

Alternatively, there might be 'naturalistic' explanations for all these things, and we are misinterpreting the signs and inferring the actions of a God where there is none.

What are the necessary characteristics of an entity to make that entity a (or 'the only') God? You see, the way I find myself thinking is this: suppose there is a being who hears prayer and sometimes effects 'miraculous' healings on people, does that mean that this being was also responsible for creating the entire universe? Of course not. Does that mean that this being has a plan and a purpose for your life or mine? Of course not. Does that mean that this being is the source of morality? Of course not. Does that mean that this being will be the judge of the living and the dead? Of course not. Does that mean that this being would be able to do anything about the postmortem existence or eternal destination of any people? Of course not. Our experience of this being, if he even exists, does not and cannot inform us about most of the big claims made about God in the bible or by Christians.

You see, I kind of want to be scientific about this - what can be tested about God? Existence? Perhaps. Characteristics in the present day? Perhaps. Claims about the far past or the distant future? Absolutely not.

So where I find myself is this: I believe there might be a god (let's go for a small 'g' for now) with the ability to hear and answer some prayers and the ability to effect some minor healings. But this god bears almost no connection to the God of the bible. So many myths and undemonstrable claims have been added to the original kernel of this god that it is now virtually impossible to discern the real god from the myths. 'He' might be there, but he might be a lot smaller than most believers think. I have no way of knowing. Sigh.

I've looked at God from both sides now
from omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent creator and sustainer of all things and not, but still somehow 
its God illusions I recall
I really don't know God at all...

So the big problem now is where I go from here, and how I should live? Don't worry, I'm not about to go on a wanton immoral activities spree because I don't necessarily believe in the eternal consequences of my moral actions, but what you believe has consequences for how you live. Presently I go to church on a weekly basis and give a significant percentage of my income to the church. Should I change that? Beyond that, I have a great number of family members and friends who are Christians. What should I say to them (only a tiny minority of them read this blog, so most are quite unaware of the way I find myself thinking these days)? What if I'm wrong? What if Matthew 18v6 is true? If I'm in error, I don't want to drag anyone else into the same error. But then again, if I'm not in error, then I don't really want family and friends to waste their time believing in myths and other unjustifiable things.

One of my favourite verses in the bible has always been John 10v10b, which says: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." I still want to experience life in all its fullness, but is this best achieved by believing the unverifiable and following the mostly mythical, or can this be achieved by turning away from all that and heading out into uncharted territory without a guide?

13 comments:

Mike McQuaid said...

We're in a very similar place I think so I'd be glad to know if you get any more answers. Where we might disagree is the importance for certainty as opposed to high probabilities; I think the historical Jesus folks have some fairly high probability claims they can make of Jesus and I think I'd have time for any views that result from attempts at genuine science towards Jesus.

S said...

Mike's just introduced me to your blog. You are not alone. I'd say head out into uncharted territory but keep your Christian traditions as a guide for now while you explore, a bit of mystery and uncertainty is no bad thing...if you think about it, the Bible would have us believe that the earliest Christians headed off with only a much maligned Torah for guidance, the Bible didn't come about for a good few years after that!

Douglas McIntosh said...

Hi Ricky,

Enjoyed reading your post, which I got tweeted at me, and asked for thoughts.

Quick BG: Came to Christianity from a history of reading impressively unsound books. Introduced to actual christians and some bible reading. Eventually became christian from a fairly solid history of atheism.

Therefore I never grew up being taught that things had to be done a specific way or that particular things had to be believed.

In my experience the absolutely certain christian (or other holder of a non scientifically provable hypothesis) is wrong. People get invested in their particular system, build up a system around their faulty axioms and then resist all debate that might challenge this.

I am sure there is a story somewhere about buildings & foundations and inclement conditions :)

For me the main problem was not with various christians and denominations. In practice I could see that most christians, often within the same congregation, had varying beliefs about many things. They tended to accept this and tended not to push one another too much. Core beliefs tended to be something like:

* A universal creator God exist, in some manner Jesus is his son / avatar / God himself.

* Jesus existed and lived a life that should be a model for us.

* He died for a sins and we can be saved by our faith in him, which may or may not be qualified by some kind of faith / works balance.

* The bible is true for various definitions of true.

Prior to becoming a christian I would have placed the bible in the historical fiction part of the library. Much like Tony Blair's biography.

Imagine my surprise when some reading to the bible (fairly limited) and some life experience tipped over the edge in christianity.

Now my feelings for the bible vary between 'often historical fiction' to 'inspired by God.'

There's plenty of leeway there and I am more than happy to never find a definitive answer. The christian path I have walked since does not seem to demand such an answer from me.

For me questioning and uncertainty lead to a stronger faith. Most questions and doubts others have I have as well.

My advice would be to speak to your friends that you trust, you will probably find there are many others in a similar position. Look at other parts of your life that are guided by unverifiable claims; economics, politics, you own psychological theories. Think about your questions, pray about them even read the bible ;) See what answers you come up with, debate them, test them and emerge stronger.

Anyway I seem to have rambled on much longer than I intended. Hope some of what I said is on topic and useful to you. Would love to hear where you end up.

KWRegan said...

Ken Regan---old friend of Marcus Green from Merton re-connecting after many years. Your use of "Both Sides Now" draws me in---I once performed it at a professional computer science meeting. I can't be comprehensive, but let me give some opinions relevant to the three parts of this post about the Bible, Jesus, and God. I've had them pretty consistently since my Catholic confirmation almost 40 years ago, though I wasn't very forward about them during my time in the Merton CU. I don't claim these should "rule", but they may give a helpfully different angle.

1a. The Bible is inerrant in the sense of communication using an error-correcting code. For a little more see Chapter 10 of William Dembski's book /The End of Christianity/.

1b. Why should the Bible follow Greek logic when Nature follows quantum logic? To add to your examples of "contradictions", all four Gospels tell the story of Palm Sunday, but with some material differences---and my essay "Hey You" on my website is happy to superpose them.

1c. Perfection does not mean optimization; it means fulfillment.

2. If "something supernatural were going on" with God sending an emissary, would the showing be "cosmic" or "particular"? If your message includes "I hold your pain", how could it be the former? (The buzzterm is "the scandal of particularity".)

3. I call myself a "partial fideist" insofar as I disclaim mathematical or reproducible (i.e., "testable" as you ask) knowledge of God, but I allow for experiential knowledge and modeling (like "systematic theology"). There's a little more about this on my website. Philosopher Thomas Nagel has not gone much further on the side of atheism, famously bringing it down to say, "I don't want there to be a God...I don't want the universe to be like that." Philosopher David Chalmers equates being "like that" with "The Matrix" and takes the possibility seriously---very. I can give some testimony (besides what's on my website), but let me take your third thread away from direct query about God instead to the question, what kind of world do we live in?

Before pursuing that, however, let me pose to you instead a question that sits in the uncomfortable crack of my fideism. It actually adjoins my professional research, insofar as I shoulder a responsibility to arbitrate how much is "too much" coincidence between a chessplayer's moves and a computer's---terrible court case going on in France involving a top-100 player. Here's a particular example: what's your reaction to the "3:16 Game" of American football involving Tim Tebow which I watched in real time last Jan 8? Find the Wikipedia page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3:16_Game) and look at the list 1--6 at the bottom. Note that the CBS Sports boxscore's time-of-possession for Pittsburgh says "31:00" which seems to contradict NFL.com's boxscore, but when you actually add the times at the CBS play-by-play page which is linked you get 31:06 (note that 0:06 for a Pittsburgh kickoff with 3:48 left in the 4th quarter does not count as possession). Icing on that cake is that Demaryius Thomas' name decomposes into God, Mary, "I", and the doubting apostle...which seems to fit your blog well :-).

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks for the replies so far folks. Glad to hear I'm not alone and not being cast out into the outer darkness by Christians... ;o)

There's the bones of a sequel to this post rattling around in my head which touches on some of the points made by Douglas and Ken there - it'll regard "the Word of God" and what that might mean... but I'm going away for a few days so it might be a while before it appears.

KWRegan said...

Great---I like what S and Douglas say. If your thoughts on "Word" get into John 1 with "Logos", do see also the "John Donne Meets Google" essay on my site---I guess I can link it here.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ricky;

I used to be in a very similar position to that of which you seem to find yourself.

Just a few thoughts. ( On a variety of things, please forgive my scatter-braininess )

I've read some Bob Price myself, and have frankly been disillusioned with much of what he has to say. I find that he is the classic case of the bible thumping believer turned bible burning advocator. He simply traded one type of fundamentalism for another.

Now, that being said, I don't mean to paint him with one brush; he does have some decent thoughts and arguments, however, having critically looked at his work, I find he makes much ado about nothing. ( And, quite honestly, whether deliberately or not, he spreads some patently false and misleading information )

I find that he stretches incredibly far to reach a conclusion with many of his "striking parallels," and as for his constant reference to Yeshua (Jesus) as a "type" from stories of the Old Testament; that's just it.

Yeshua was the fulfillment of many of the themes and peoples that we encounter in the Tanakh (Old Test.)

Granted, I understand the skeptic trying to make the argument that the New Testament writers "copied" much of the Yeshua story from their scriptures, but at the same time, isn't that exactly what you would expect if Yeshua was in fact the type of character the gospels propose he is? ( Not that they are copying, but that because of who He (Yeshua) is, we find typologies in reference to figures of reverence and symbolic importance of G-d's kingdom )

Now, obviously, to agree with that supposition you have to believe that the gospels portray a fairly honest portrait of Yeshua and what he did, things he said, etc.

May I just add one story, not even from the gospels, but from the Talmud, which I think tends to lend some decent credibility to making such a declaration of faith. (IE; that Yeshua really was proclaiming himself to be the Mashiach, the anointed one of G-d, who was atoning for the sins of the people by restoring creation)

From the Talmud;

"Our Rabbis taught: Throughout the forty years that Simeon the Righteous ministered, the lot [‘For the Lord’] would always come up in the right hand; from that time on, it would come up now in the right hand, now in the left. And [during the same time] the crimson-coloured strap would become white. From that time on it would at times become white, at others not. Also: Throughout those forty years the westernmost light13 was shining, from that time on, it was now shining, now failing; also the fire of the pile of wood kept burning strong, so that the priests did not have to bring to the pile any other wood besides the two logs, in order to fulfill the command about providing the wood un-intermittently; from that time on, it would occasionally keep burning strongly, at other times not, so that the priests could not do without bringing throughout the day wood for the pile [on the altar]

Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For the Lord’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves, until R. Johanan b. Zakkai rebuked them, saying: Hekal, Hekal, why wilt thou be the alarmer thyself? I know about thee that thou wilt be destroyed, for Zechariah ben Ido has already prophesied concerning thee: Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars."

(Continued)

Anonymous said...

(Continued from above)

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in all of Judaism, and was central to the kapparah (covering) of the sins of Israel. The scarlet thread, as explained in the above passage, miraculously turned white if Adonai accepted the sacrifice, thus indicating that He forgave the sins of the people. If the thread did not turn white, then they were sad, as their sins were not forgiven.

This section in the Talmud divides this time into three periods of 40 years, coinciding with the life of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Leading up to the last set of forty years when the scarlet thread ceased altogether, the miracle sporadically occurred. What is extremely significant, or "coincidental", is that the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Yeshua of Nazareth, whom a first-century apocalyptic sect of Judaism believed was the Mashiach, was crucified circa 30 AD. The "coincidence" is now obvious, the scarlet thread finally ceased turning white at the time Yeshua was crucified."
Now, I'm not saying that this piece of information is an end all, be all, but it certainly does make one think. The gospels portray Yeshua's death as an atonement, as does Saul. Is it merely a coincidence that the Yom Kippur sacrifice, for atonement, stopped being accepted?

This is but one of many evidences which lead to me believe that Yeshua was in fact, the author of the faith. I tend to agree with Margaret Barker on these things.
I guess my advice to you Ricky, is this; keep searching, keep believing in miracles, and the truth will find you.

Try to see things not so much as an "either, or" but more as a "both, and."

Try to find Yeshua in his Hebrew roots, and in all honesty, Evangelical Christianity, (as you have been discovering) is not always the best place to find answers to questions of the faith.

Drop the dogmas; trinity, eternal hell, heaven, oversimplifications, etc.

The Bible becomes so much clearer and enriching once you let it interpret itself, rather than approaching it with a preconceived belief system to uphold.

My best wishes to you in your search for the fullness of life.

Nate

Gary said...

KWRegan said "Icing on that cake is that Demaryius Thomas' name decomposes into God, Mary, "I", and the doubting apostle"...I think Thomas refers to "twin". With implications of the Gospel of Thomas, Twin, Jesus, seeking God within each of us. I rather like the Gospel of Thomas, in that it reflects the same search for God, via knowledge (that we either discover, or bump into by accident). Not the wacko religion that Irenaeus was trying to eliminate by book burning, to protect his clergy position. So I'm in the same boat as you...lots of questions, but no answers. But bottom line, we live in a society of friends and family, so you go with the flow, and let other people be the crusaders. Patiently wait for the time of determinism. At death, you will either receive all the answers; or you will not exist, and then answers won't mean anything anyway. In the meantime, enjoy your family and friends, and live under the assumption that God exists. Since the alternative is rather bleak, and you can't do anything about it anyway. It might be a fantasy, but who said fantasy is bad. We spend half of our life dreaming.

Tim said...

Ricky

As always, a great thoughtful post and some equally thoughtful responses from your readers. You might recall my position from earlier comments: your journey is a lot like mine and your church experience not dissimilar (though I'm a sassanach so my Evangey-Charismaticism was in an Anglican setting).

The case for Christ is found wanting. You realise that and summarise it so well above. The gospels are utterly vitiated of any meaningful historical recount. But they remain, as with all mythic texts, able to impart meaning by way of interpretative schemas imposed on them. The history of biblical hermenuetics shows how attempts to understand these texts ebb and flow, influenced unsurprisingly by other cultural pressures. See for example early Rationalism's attempts and subsequently David Stauss's landmark response to both it and conventional supernaturalistic interpretations.

Ken's comment above mentions Dembski's "error-correcting code" - this has been spun out from the popular ID concept of DNA as a code requiring a supernatural coder. But Dembski's application of this to broader theological questions is just another example of a creative but desparate Evangelical response to the problem: how can we ringfence ancient but discredited foundational texts of the faith? (You can read the chapter Ken refers to on Google books; it's a peculiar attempt at a metaphysical justification for the Trinity - even down to the masculinity of God! - based on communication theory.) The inventiveness of such attempts is admirable but, as you say, a Pandora's box cannot be resealed - or to use another variation, you can't put the supernatural toothpaste back in the gospel tube. The egregious errors in the four gospels don't correct each other.

As Deconstructionism has demonstrated, interpretation is read into textual data. Meaning is imposed from without. Despite Dembski's hypotheses, unless a common cypher is agreed upon, reverse engineering one can lead to all kinds of false positives. As if to give another fine example of this, Ken obliges us with the Tim Tebow 3-16 Game. Searching for hidden meanings in figures has been a part of mysticism since humans learned to count. From Pythagoreanism to the Kabbalah numbers are thought to hold magical properties, since they are reckoned(!) to be somehow inviolable and not open to manipulation. Instead the manipulation comes from the arbitrary cyphers imposed on the data. Anything that vaguely fits the agenda is seized upon - eg, 31.06 is not the same as 3.16; the game being 3 years to the day of Tebow's first evangelistic eyeblack (so what?); Demaryius Thomas' birthday is Xmas Day (newsflash: it wasn't Jesus' birthday)

I played this game once with my birthdate and found all kinds of coincidental patterns with numbers and events in my life. Try it and see if you can divine anything with yours.

What's worse is that Christians insisting on such hidden patterns never consider the full philosophical implications: everything from the players' throws to the free choice of Demaryius' parents in deciding his name, even the long-standing national obsession with pedantic stats in American sports, was all foreordained by God with a hyper-predeterminism. The God of Elijah has gone from burning the altars of the prophets of Baal to rigging NFL games. Forgive me for saying so but today's Christian supernaturalism is simply inane (gold dust and dental work!) and modern believers are too easily impressed. Though anyone willing to recreate Elijah's BBQ exploits would however get my attention. Let me know if you can persuade Yahweh to rehearse his former repertoire.

If you want life to the full, believe me it exists beyond Evangelicalism. You wonder if it can be found without a guide. Remember it's the same people who think that the gospels are historical records of a divine visitation who also suggest the Good Book is the Lonely Planet guide to meaning.

KWRegan said...

Thanks especially to Tim for engaging what I wrote in depth---plus Anon/Nate's writing about Yeshua and the Talmud, and Gary on the Gospel of Thomas (which is included by Willis Barnstone in his NT translation) also bear on a private conversation I've been having. To clarify a few things about Dembski: I cited him out of deference---I had the idea while at Merton, even before I co-taught Oxford's course on error-correcting codes. A statement from 2008 linked on my Christian page says I'm no fan of ID. Regarding Dec. 25 as the intensional if not extensional date of Yeshua's birth, see http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp

Now about the "3:16 Game", I myself am uncomfortable with it and was posing it to move the subject away from God to one's view on the world. You (Tim) give your view, including that the meaning has been imposed from without. To demur, first there is no "hidden meaning" here---the "3:16" is overt and it's everything (D. Thomas is a side "fun" matter and I don't even mention his birthday or the three-year lapse or the 3rd-and-16 interception in private correspondence). Second, the game and stats meet criteria for "salience" that I use in judging explained here http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~regan/chess/fidelity/Golfers.html with reference to "Littlewood's Law". It was a playoff game in Tebow's first full season as a starter; yards passing is the salient stat; many other stats do not admit a "316" association. For total possession time the issue is not "vague fitting agenda" but rather how many values have the association: 3 min. 16 sec. is an impossible value, while 30 min. 16 sec. is more stilted than 31 min. 6 sec. A single possession of 3:16 time I would, as above, not mention.
(cont'd)

KWRegan said...

(Cont'd) Your birthdate idea would be an interesting study. Did you use a 3-4, 5-6, or 7-8 digit form of your birthdate? I'm Sep. 13, 1959, so under the middle option say "13959" for me, or "91359" Yank-style. Raw odds to match this exactly are 1-in-100,000, but Benford's Law lowers that for strings beginning with lower digits, and in some cases the better odds reckoning is 1-in-365*(10 or so years). Next, are you troving for matching features or taking them randomly, and how salient are they? Troving really changes things---I can Google my numbers to find hits. My date makes a nice echo with pi, 3.14159...which is salient, not troving, yet also far from an exact match. I'd be curious to see a couple of your examples.

The philosophical implications do bother me---even more gut-level, this stuff "stands in front of the Gospels." It can equally well serve in a discussion of Nick Bostrom's "simulation argument" or of multiverse theory. But you can't ask for "signs" to be taken out of the subject---even when Thomas Jefferson took a razor to the Gospels, the man with the withered hand was still there in context, and much else that is scandalously particular. As for Elijah's BBQ, Jesus said the closest we'll come is Jonah's serving of dogfish---even Jesus' own fish fry was a limited run. That's for signs we ask for---regarding the question of ones we don't ask for, I say to stand statistical science in front and examine worldview, and allow for "gratuitous" ones that can impart direction to life. The latter may just be a reflection that supplementary random inputs currently markedly increase the power of some computational algorithms, but within randomness there's a lot of leeway, and "de-randomization" beliefs in my professional field replace it with finitistic stuff that's actually more powerful in this context.

KWRegan said...

One side matter: My first comment's point about contradictions in the boxscore relates to those in the Gospels. Even with computers we often don't get the figures right in daily sports reporting. Scribal errors in chess games bedevil my work, throwing my "Average Error" stat off by about 10% I reckon if I don't correct at least the biggest ones, and I've been pushing for an official commission to adjudicate problem cases. Note one correction here; previously the gamescore had both Queens being left in-take to the phantom Rooks on every other move.