Human Violence: A Long History

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A recent article in Science News (http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/64465/title/Massacre_at_Sacred_Ridge) has noted extensive archeological evidence of human violence dating back thousands of years. Groups not usually associated with extensive violence, such as Native American communities in the Southwest during the 1300s C. E., were guilty of brutal violence against groups of people. This should be no surprise to Christians, who believe that, whatever happened to humans historically in their evolution, in some real sense they are “fallen.” G. K. Chesterton once said that the doctrine of original sin was the only Christian doctrine that could be empirically verified. At the very least, the notion that people are not what they ought to be, and haven’t been as far back as archeological evidence extends, is true. Violence, brutality, and genocide are part and parcel of the human condition. No group is immune to evil. The attempt by some multiculturalists and Marxists to set aside some groups (such as Native Americans) as nonviolent and virtuous and other groups (such as Europeans) as violent and genocidal is true only to the extent that the Europeans were more thorough in their violence and genocide. There is absolutely no excuse for the near-complete genocide of the Native American tribes of the U. S. But that does not imply that the Native Americans were totally innocent and without original sin (in the sense of having a propensity to do wrong, not in the Augustinian sense of being born with guilt). No culture, no race, no society can avoid the scourge of having evil people in its midst. To exclude any group from the general human condition really dehumanizes them, putting them in a status that they cannot possibly reach by their behavior. The higher the pedestal, the harder a group falls. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” said St. Paul in Romans, and he was surely right. We have every right to condemn violence, mass murder, and genocide where it has occurred. But we do not have the moral right to place some groups in a status so that they could not be possibly guilty of such crimes themselves. Archeology and historical evidence may come back to bite ideologues who neatly divide human groups into the oppressors and the oppressed. Such ideologues ought to study history and realize what happens when the so-called “oppressed” take power–the old Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea come to mind. Every one of us is capable of hurting our fellow man. May God give us the grace to realize that when it comes to violent people, “but for the grace of God were I.” Then we may realistically and with humility do our part to lessen the violence that so mars our world.

Survival Research and Culturally-Based Conclusions

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I have just returned from an excellent talk presented by Dr. Pamela Rae Heath, a medical doctor and leading researcher in parapsychology, at the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina. She spoke on a number of issues in mind-matter interaction (MMI) or what is also termed psychokinesis (PK). I was pleased that her talk, while containing some of her conclusions that go beyond current evidence, was for the most part based on the best current research in parapsychology.

However, prior to her talk, I browsed her book, Handbook to the Afterlife. The quality of her talk was a surprise given the loose extrapolation from the survival evidence I saw in her book. Basically, life after death is envisioned as a process of personal growth that parallels growth and development (at least mental and spiritual development) in the present life and which includes a reincarnation component. This goes way beyond the actual survival evidence and was based, to some extent, on “channeling.”

How could someone give a scholarly presentation to the lay public and yet have a book that would fit into any fluff-brained New Ager‘s library? I fear that Dr. Heath was guilty of the same thing of which she accuses religious interpreters of MMI–that they interpret their experiences in terms of their cultural expectations. Now if Dr. Heath said, “That’s okay–we cannot avoid cultural expectations when interpreting data,” I would have no problem. But she seemed to assume (and I may have misunderstood) that parapsychological lacks such cultural expectations when it examines the data. That is simply false, and when we are dealing with survival research, cultural assumptions are unavoidable.

Take Dr. Heath’s position on the afterlife. It fits well into the American idea of evolutionary progress which has continued, unlike in Europe, to heavily influence American thought. Europe has suffered through two World Wars on its soil; America has 9-11, which was but one attack, and the War Between the States, which is distant to most Americans. Thus Americans buy into the idea of progress–and a life after death of continual evolutionary progress fits into American culture. The notion of multiple reincarnations, which in Eastern religions is something to be avoided if possible, becomes a positive thing in American New Age thought. A Hindu or Theravada Buddhist would be horrified by the American New Age interpretation of reincarnation.

I will be the first to admit that I am biased against reincarnation. As an orthodox Anglican Christian, I cannot accept reincarnation unless the evidence for it were so overwhelming that only a fool would reject it. That is not currently the case, even with Ian Stevenson‘s research. Stephen Braude has pointed out serious methodological flaws with the Stevenson research (for which see his book Immortal Remains). The problem of super-psi also plagues survival research; it seems to me that the best mediumship evidence (Leonora Piper‘s readings, for example) and the best near-death experience cases support at least a minimal survival of death of the individual personality in some form. But this does not justify a specific picture of the afterlife, at least at this stage of the research. Current research would be incompatible with non-survivalists and with the “no-self” view of Theravada Buddhism in which only five aggregates survival with no survival of the self. Beyond that, the research paints a picture of survival that is compatible with some Jewish views, some Christian views, with Pure Land Buddhist views, and even with the American progressive view that Dr. Heath espouses. But the evidence does not clearly support one of those views over another. For me, the evidence is a preparation for faith–it removes a barrier to my acceptance of the full Christian revelation on life after death. For Dr. Heath, the evidence supports a more “secular” or “natural” developmental view of life after death in which we evolve to higher levels of human accomplishment, with reincarnation being a part of that process. My point is that both Dr. Heath and I, to some extent, interpret the survival evidence in terms of our own cultural expectations. To expect that anyone could do otherwise is naive.

The Abuse of the Term “Hate”

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As a long-time critic of brain death criteria and the current system of organ transplantation, I sometimes surf the web to check out discussion groups and blogs on these issues. On one blog, a woman wrote a message in the comments section concerning those who oppose organ transplantation: “How can anyone oppose organ transplantation? How can anyone be filled with so much hate?”

The woman’s reaction not only demonstrates a total lack of basic critical thinking skills, it also illustrates what happens when people follow the 1960s mantra, “The political is the personal.” Instead of arguing against her opponents, this woman accused them of being “haters.” That tactic is way too often used in debates over moral issues to avoid the difficult task of argumentation. Argumentation requires thinking, and thinking is hard work. It is easier to set one’s brain aside and appeal to emotion–saying that someone who disagrees with one’s own position is “full of hate” is an appeal to emotion and an abusive ad hominem fallacy.

Such individuals do not listen to claims by their opponents that their position is not a personal matter or that it was arrived at through reason. Debates from abortion to the moral acceptability of homosexual activity have been poisoned by the misuse of the word “hate.” But the supporters of abortion and of homosexuality (and other causes as well) who call their opponents haters are not interested in rational argument–they are interested in power. And if they take away any social capital from their opponents, they gain power at the expense of their opponents. Thus, an academic who opposes abortion, premarital sex, or homosexual practice will be labeled a hater, accused of holding “unacceptable positions,” and terminated, as happened with a professor in the University of Illinois system who presented in class a natural law argument against the morality of homosexual practice. He was later rehired after protests, but it shows the extent to which professors and college and university administrators have abandoned reason in favor of emotional screeds.

Anyone with a minimum of critical thinking skills realizes that just because someone disagrees with another person’s moral actions, this does not imply any hatred. I disagree with people who engage in premarital sex, but if I hated them I would have virtually no friends. I disagree sharply with abortion, but I do not hate women who have abortions. I feel anger toward doctors and nurses who participate in abortions but do not hate them. As for homosexuality, I disagree with people practicing it, but it no more implies that I hate them than my disagreement with premarital sex implies that I hate those who engage in that practice. Of course my opponents know this–they are not interested in honest debate. They are interested in silencing their opponents. The radical left has done well in accusing those who disagree with its agenda of reworking society in its image of being “haters” or “full of hate.” In that way, the radical left puts their opponents on the defensive and eventually silences them, by force (threatening their careers, for example) if they deem it necessary. This is dirty pool, and it is dishonest. When radical leftists accuse their opponents of hating, these radical leftists are liars–and most of them likely realize they are lying.

There are leftists, a few, who will present rational arguments for their positions and who will not stoop to the gutter tactics of hate accusations. I would hope that these honest leftists would encourage other leftists to take the high road in their arguments. And to the extent that conservatives attempt to emulate unfair tactics of the left, they should also be called to task, first of all by other conservatives. I fear that if public discourse does not get out of the gutter, then the culture war will be moving in a disturbing direction that society as a whole will end up regretting.

Halloween, Ignorance, and the Genetic Fallacy

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Some Christian churches condemn trick-or-treating as if it were a branch of witchcraft. Instead, they have “fall festivals” in which children dress up like Bible characters or (in the Catholic tradition) like saints. Halloween is, in the literature of Fundamentalist Christianity, connected with Satanism. Even in some less rigid Evangelical traditions Halloween is considered to be pagan.

These are ignorant positions. So what is Halloween? It is the eve of All Saints’ Day, which is why it is sometimes called “All Hallows Eve.” In the ancient Druidic religion of the Celts, it was considered a day in which spirits could pass through to this world. These spirits were not necessarily evil; some were benevolent, others not so much. To protect themselves from harmful spirits, Celts would dress up as spirits to ward off the bad ones. Other customs, such as the jack-0-lantern, arose from the Roman Catholic tradition, from the practice of placing a candle in a turnip to remember souls in Purgatory. Since the souls in Purgatory will be in Heaven one day, remembering them was not considered to be a frightening occasion.

By the late nineteenth century, the elements that would later make up trick-or-treating were in place, but trick-or-treating did not become common practice until the twentieth century. Halloween was not historically associated with Satanism despite Fundamentalists who seem to find Satan around every corner except their own.

Roman Catholics have been, for the most part, friendly to trick-or-treating–even Fr. Gabriel Amroth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, has no problem with trick-or-treating as long as it is only play. Mainline Protestants also have no problem with celebrating Halloween. But other Protestants and a few rigid Roman Catholics insist that Halloween remains a pagan festival even today that is wrong for Christians to celebrate.

The fallacy in the Fundamentalists’ argument is obvious: they assume that because a certain celebration began as x, it is always x. That is, they assume that if Halloween began as a pagan celebration, then any celebration of Halloween must be a pagan festival. This is a version of the genetic fallacy, which involves the assumption that because a practice originally had one meaning that it necessarily has that same meaning today. This is a common error some Christians (and many others) make, but the conclusion does not follow from the premise.

As a child, I loved trick-0r-treating. As long as precautions are taken against cruel people who would harm children during trick-or-treating, I believe it is a fun activity in which children can engage.

Do Fiction, Folklore, and Myth Make the Bible a Series of Lies?

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Over and over again I read or hear Fundamentalists and many Evangelicals claim that if the Bible contains any errors then it cannot be trusted and is just another human book. They especially dislike the claims of mainstream Biblical scholars that the Bible contains fiction, folklore, and myth. There are two questions to consider: first, does the Bible, in fact, contain these genres, and second, if it does, do the presence of those items destroy the authority of the Bible?

There is overwhelming evidence that the Bible contains all three genres. First, consider myth. Genesis 1-11 is, for any objective reader, set in a realm of myth. Now myth can tell the truth, just not in a literal way. Genesis 1, for example, tells the truth when it affirms that one God, not many gods as the Gentile nations surrounding ancient Israel believed, created the universe. But the framework–the three story universe with flat earth, the dome of the sky above and Sheol below, is adapted from the common myths of the ancient Near East, especially Babylonia. This, of course, fits the location of the Priestly (P) writer(s) of Genesis 1–the 6th century B.C.E. when the Jews were in Babylonian exile. The narrative of man’s creation, the first murder, the Tower of Babel, and the Flood, are mythological, with the Flood story being modified from the Babylonian flood story. We are not talking about literal history here.

Now Genesis 12-the rest of the Pentateuch is most likely folklore. There may be some historical basis for Abraham and the other Patriarchs, but they may be legendary figures as well–we simply do not know. Moses may have existed, but the stories are so reworked that it is not possible to distinguish history from nonhistory. By the time we get to the David story, I believe (contrary to some Biblical scholars) that we are more in the realm of history than in the realm of folklore, but it would not bother me if David is a legendary figure. Later we are more in the realm of what we today would call “history,” but even then there is not the concern for exact accuracy found in modern history.

Some books of the Bible are fictional–Ruth, Esther, Daniel, and Jonah0 are fictional stories meant to teach larger lessons. Why should any Christian be disturbed by this? If the books were written as fiction, so be it–it should not be shocking that they are not historical if they were meant to be fictional.

None of this destroys the authority of the Bible. As C. S. Lewis noted, the early books of the Bible share more of the nature of myth–as we move closer to Christ, the historical focus becomes stronger. Although the Gospels are not histories in the modern sense, they offer a generally accurate account of the life of Christ.

Ultimately it is the Church that sets the limits of Biblical interpretation. The Nicene Creed affirms the Incarnation, that Christ is fully God, fully man. It affirms the Virgin Birth, the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection of all people at the end of time. These beliefs must be affirmed, and not merely as symbolic. Either Jesus’ cold, dead body was really raised from the dead or Christianity is nonsense. Within those limits we are free to speculate, and this includes historical-critical and literary study of the Bible.

Some Evangelicals claim that since Jesus was God, he had to be correct when he referred to the flood in Noah’s day or some other story mentioned in the Old Testament. But as philosopher Richard Swinburne points out, Jesus would express his message in terms that the Jewish people of his day would understand, and this might include a reference to Noah’s flood, a story that would be taken literally by the Jews of Jesus’ day. It would make no sense for Jesus to say, “And by the way, Noah never existed and there was no universal flood.” Thus myth, folklore, and fiction in the Bible do not take away from Jesus’ authority, much less from the authority of the Bible. The Bible is inerrant only in the sense that it cannot err in telling us what is required for our salvation. The Church summarizes the message of the early written traditions of the Bible in its Holy Tradition, thereby setting the boundaries of proper belief (orthodoxy).

The Fundamentalist Obsession with Bible Prophecy

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“Just surfing,” I found an odd site on the web called bibleprophecy.net which sells a book called The Late Great USA: The Coming War with Iran. Some readers may remember similar nonsense being written by prophecy-obsessed Fundamentalist Christians during the First Gulf War. More rational Christians may consider such views harmless–“Let the Fundamentalists play games with prophecy.” The problem is that these Fundamentalists vote and tend to support warmongers for public office. And when some politicians themselves believe nonsense and support the United States attacking Iran due to Bible prophecy, their views do become dangerous.

I must confess I was the same way as a child–I was fascinated with the prophetic books and believed that the worsening conditions in the world showed that Bible prophecy was being fulfilled in front of my eyes. Although I was never a Premillennialist, I still tried to find parallels between Bible prophecy and present-day Israel that did not involve Premillennialist theory. I accepted the “continuous historical method” of interpreting the book of Revelation, believing that it was an almost chronological foretelling of future events.

Of course I was wrong-headed, since the prophetic books of the Bible were meant to communicate with people of their own day. Prophets were not as much foretelling as warning God’s people that unless they repent, God would use their enemies to destroy them. And the apocalyptic books such as parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation were meant to comfort Jews or Christians facing persecution with the knowledge that God would destroy their persecutors. The symbolism of prophecy is well-understood by scholars. The symbol “666” as the symbol of the beast is seven minus one–with seven being the perfect number for ancient Jews, “6” was imperfect or flawed, “seven minus one,” so that “666” refers to evil times another important number, “three.” The idea is that “666” refers to ultimate evil. We can interpret that evil in terms of today’s evils, but to argue that the number refers to one specific person is a flawed interpretation.

To use Bible prophecy as an excuse for supporting war is theologically and morally reprehensible. In addition, an obsession with prophecy as predictions of present events takes Christians’ minds away from amending their lives and becoming more Christ-like. There is a certain perverse fun in discussing whether the beast of Revelation refers to Iran or to China, or whether Armageddon refers to a final war between the United States and China (or whatever enemy becomes the obsession of the day). But Christians should pay more attention to the prophetic books’ warnings to amend their lives. They should take comfort that God is in control and trust in Him. Focusing on prophecy at the expense of more important things is sinful. Using prophecy to support killing of one’s fellow men is evil.

Hostility to the Hereafter and the Movie “Hereafter”

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I have seen the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Hereafter and have been surprised by the extremes in reviews. Roger Ebert gives the movie four stars and an “A” rating. On the other side of the spectrum is Peter Ranier of The Christian Science Moniter who accuses the movie of “quackery” and gives it a C- rating. Other ratings ranged anywhere from a numerical rating ranging from a low of 56 to a high of 100. A similar phenomenon was seen with the initial release of Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining, which is almost universally recognized today as an innovative classic of the horror genre.

Hereafter is the story of a dissatisfied medium, George Lonegan (played by Matt Damon), a French journalist, Marie Lelay (played by Cecile de France) who has a near-death experience in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and an English schoolboy, Marcus (played by both Frankie and George McLaren), whose brother Jason (also played by both Frankie and George McLaren), who come together at the London Book Fair in circumstances that seem almost providential, but which could also be attributed to chance. A similar ambiguity is found in the movie Grand Canyon. Hereafter explores the issue of whether we survive death through the characters, and the screenwriter, Peter Morgan, whose previous credits include The Queen and Frost-Nixon, clearly has done his homework. As Roger Ebert notes, the movie does not say that an afterlife is proven by George McLaren’s genuine abilities; as parapsychologists know, veridical evidence from honest mediums can be due to telepathy from living persons or from clairvoyance. The ambiguity of the NDE is also noted, as well as Marie’s being absolutely convinced that her experience is real (what William James calls “noetic quality). The emotions the movie evokes are genuine, and though the movie veers perilously close to sentimentality, it does not cross that line. It is one of the best movies I have seen.

What accounts for some of the hostility toward Hereafter. I cannot read reviewers’ minds, but I would speculate that some reviewers are so hostile to any notion of survival of death that they are offended by a movie that is open to the possibility. Some of the evidence for survival is indeed suspect, but the movie recognizes this and shows Marcus visiting a number of fake mediums. But there are people in the world who would not be convinced of survival of death even if their mothers returned from the dead and hugged them. Survival of death is not possible in their world view. Thus, even though Hereafter can be interpreted as open to the possibility of life after death without affirming it, that possibility is too much to admit for the radical secularist.

On the other side of the issue would be individuals who want the movie to be less ambiguous on life after death–to affirm an afterlife without reservation. Morgan, who personally opposes an afterlife, and Eastwood wisely avoid reaching such conclusions. In real life they go beyond the evidence, but I think the ambiguity makes a better story–the audience begins the movie with wonder and ends the movie with wonder. This is a movie I definitely plan to purchase when it comes out on DVD.

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