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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

he ain't got no common sense

It's been half a year since I read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. At the time, you may recall, I was not impressed. But with a little time for marination, do Dawkins' words become any more appetizing?

Sadly (or happily, depending on your point of view), the answer appears to be no. Take, for example, Dawkins' dismissal of what he calls the "Argument from Personal Experience."

If you've had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don't expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.

- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Dawkins devotes an entire section to various "arguments" for faith. Some of them, such as the Argument from Scripture, the Argument from Beauty the Bayesian Argument, or even classical arguments like Aquinas' Cosmological Argument or Anselm's Ontological Argument, aren't convincing even to me, so I can see why Dawkins would not be impressed. And I can understand why he might not want to just take someone's word that their personal experiences are proof of the existence of God. I wouldn't either.

Still, there's an outright arrogance in the wording of Dawkins' dismissal. "You may well find yourself believing" that your own experience was real. But Dawkins, along with those who "have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings," know better than you do about your own experience.

Twenty years ago, when I left my parents' farm to go to college, I became aware that some of our neighbors didn't think too highly of higher education. "They won't learn you nothin' at that college," offered one older farmer. "Them folks may be smart, but they ain't got no common sense."

My experience tells me that most college professors do, in fact, got common sense, but there are a few who get so wrapped up in academia that they lose touch with the real world. The author of The God Delusion -- or of the book's source -- appears to be one of the latter.

The truth, as any old farmer can tell you, is that first-hand experience is a much better teacher than any amount of book learning.

I discovered this first-hand after graduation, when I spent a month in Spain. Though I had studied Spanish for three years in high school and college, I learned more in three weeks just by being there. The "brain and its powerful workings" work even better when spurred by an external stimulus.

Another example: Many people enjoy adrenaline sports such as skydiving, bunjee jumping, or extreme ironing. If you've ever had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing that it was real. Alas, that adrenaline rush was all in your head.

And therein lies the problem in Dawkins' argument: The brain and its powerful workings can produce some incredible sensations. But if we are to take the brain's response to an experience as the experience itself, then we really don't understand what is happening. For if we can doubt the reality of religious experiences, we can surely doubt the reality of a host of other experiences. It's the same brain, producing the same chemicals in response.

But some will object: We can verify that the person actually jumped out of the plane. We can't verify a private religious experience.

And yet, not all religious experiences are private. Even in modern times, seemingly unexplainable events have been witnessed by crowds of thousands.

On July 9, 1850, a firing squad gathered in a courtyard in Tabriz in northwestern Iran to execute Siyyid Ali Muhammad, known to his followers as the Bab ("gate"). The Bab announced that he was sent as a messenger to proclaim the coming of one who would usher in a new era of justice and peace. The ruling authorities -- as authorities are wont to do -- proclaimed him a rebel and a heretic, and condemned him to death.

When the guards arrived to take the Bab before the firing squad, he told them that no earthly power could silence him before he finished the message he was sent to deliver.

The Bab and one of his followers were suspended by ropes against a wall, and were fired upon by three groups of 250 soldiers each.

Some 10,000 people were in the courtyard to witness the event, including Western diplomats. One of these diplomats, Sir Justin Shiel, wrote back to London, "When the smoke and dust cleared away after the volley, Bab was not to be seen, and the populace proclaimed that he had ascended to the skies."

All 750 soldiers had missed. The Bab's disciple was unhurt, and the Bab himself had disappeared from the courtyard. He was found soon enough: He had returned to his cell to give final instructions to one of his students. His message completed, he willingly returned with the guards to the courtyard, where he was executed.

Perhaps there was nothing miraculous about the Bab's remarkable escape. Perhaps he was just fortunate to have been missed by all 750 shots, and took advantage of the opportunity and the ensuing confusion to impart some last words of wisdom to his followers. Or perhaps the hand of God really was evident in this. Honestly, I can't say with any authority one way or the other. I don't think God's mysterious ways must be limited to my own faith tradition.

A little closer to home -- temporally, geographically, and religiously -- are the events of October 13, 1917 in Fatima, Portugal. Leading up to that day, three children had led a growing number of townsfolk to the Cova da Iria fields outside of town to witness a series of visions in which they had seen the Virgin Mary appear in the sky. These visions had occurred on the 13th day of every month beginning in May of that year. Month by month the crowds grew. In September the children were told by Mary that the following month they would see a miracle "so that all may believe."

On the promised day, October 13, some 70,000 gathered in Cova da Iria to see what would happen. Avelino de Almeida, reporter for the liberal newspaper O Seculo, described the events this way:

From the road, where the vehicles were parked and where hundreds of people who had not dared to brave the mud were congregated, one could see the immense multitude turn toward the sun, which appeared free from clouds and in its zenith. It looked like a plaque of dull silver, and it was possible to look at it without the least discomfort. It might have been an eclipse which was taking place. But at that moment a great shout went up, and one could hear the spectators nearest at hand shouting: "A miracle! A miracle!

Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bareheaded, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws---the sun "danced" according to the typical expression of the people.

After being castigated by his peers in the secular press, Almeida wrote two weeks later, "Miracle, as the people shouted? Natural phenomenon, as the experts say? For the moment, that does not concern me, I am only saying what I saw... The rest is a matter for Science and the Church."

Exactly what happened there is perhaps unknowable to us today. But something was witnessed by tens of thousands of people that afternoon.

Does Richard Dawkins have an explanation? Indeed he does:

On the face of it mass visions, such as the report that seventy thousand pilgrims at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 saw the sun 'tear itself from the heavens and come crashing down upon the multitude', are harder to write off. It is not easy to explain how seventy thousand people could share the same hallucination. But it is even harder to accept that it really happened without the rest of the world, outside Fatima, seeing it too.

Dawkins' reasoning makes sense, as far as reasoning goes. But if we're going to doubt the testimony of 70,000 people who apparently saw a rare celestial dance, then surely we can doubt that half a dozen people survived a jump from an airplane because they were each carrying a backpack full of nylon.

It's one thing to be skeptical about religious experiences. It may even be wise to look for natural explanations, as some skeptics have done for both the Bab execution and the Fatima sun dance. But if someone -- even a bright guy like Richard Dawkins -- dismisses all religious experiences a priori as hallucinations, without taking the time to even consider other explanations, I'd have to agree with the old farmer: He ain't got no common sense.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

why i will not be raptured, part ii

In part i, four months ago, I erroneously said that rapture proponents claim Matthew 24:37-42 as support for the rapture doctrine. That was incorrect. Rapture proponents do not claim that Matthew 24:37-42 supports the rapture. They do, however, claim that Matthew 24:32-34 does. (This is just one of the reasons I can't buy into the whole rapture thing. What kind of theology builds doctrines on isolated snippets forcibly removed from their original context?)

Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

- Matthew 24:32-34

There are two sets of "these things" in Matthes 24:33-34. If you fail to distinguish between them, you will not understand what our Lord said. They are definitely not the same. The first "these things" in verse 33 refers to the tumultuous events begun by verses 7 and 8. The second "these things" refers to the prophetic future, including the Tribulation and the glorious appearing of Christ.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 57

Why does LaHaye believe this?

The key is found in verse 34. Jesus said, "This generation will by no means pass away until all these things [the second "things"] are fulfilled." The crucial issue concerns the meaning of "this generation," for whatever generation He had in mind would not pass away until the Second Coming occurred.

In Greek, the demonstrative pronoun haute (this) always refers to the person or thing mentioned immediately before it. The thing mentioned just before "generation" involves those who see the sign of Israel as she either becomes a recognized nation or when she takes possession of most of Jerusalem.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 58

How does LaHaye get all this from Matthew 24:32-34?

Many prophecy students interpret this passage to mean that when we see the rise of Israel as a nation (as we did in 1948), we will know that the time of the end is "near--at the doors." They reason that when a fig tree is used symbolically in Scripture, it usually refers to the nation Israel. If this is a valid assumption (and we believe it is), then when Israel officially became a nation in 1948, that was the "sign" of Matthew 24:1-8, the beginning "birth pains"--it means that the "end of the age" is "near."

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? pp. 56-57

How does LaHaye extrapolate all this from "fig tree"?

chirp, chirp, chirp

- crickets

A quick Bible search on the phrase "fig tree" turns up a number of different symbolic uses, some of which clearly refer to Israel, and some of which just as clearly do not. But none of them, as far as I can tell, mention the modern secular Israel founded in 1948. So to recap, LaHaye is saying, essentially, that "these things" in Matthew 24:34 refers to a different "these things" than the same words in verse 33, and that the fig tree in verse 32 refers to Israel, but to a different Israel than the one of Jesus' day.

This is the same guy, recall, who has said, "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise."

Common sense would tell me that the phrase "these things" used twice in consecutive sentences refers to the same things both times. Common sense also tells me that the words "fig tree," in a literal sense, refer to a fig tree. But I don't have LaHaye's sophisticated theological training.

So much for Matthew 24. On to the biggies.

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

- 1 Corinthians 15:50-52

Of all the verses we've looked at, this appears to be the most promising yet as support for the rapture doctrine. With its talk of the dead being raised and such, it sounds very much like an end times verse.

And indeed it is. The problem for LaHaye's theology is that this passage cannot refer to a secret rapture.

Recall LaHaye's rationale for splitting Christ's second coming into two events:

The first is the Rapture, when all living and dead Christians will be snatched up to be with Christ in the Father's house. The second is for all the people of the world, who will be judged for rejecting Christ. The first is secret, for a special group; the second is public, for everyone left on the earth. They are entirely distinct events!

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 104

LaHaye insists that the rapture is "secret, for a special group," yet 1 Corinthians 15:52 speaks of a trumpet -- twice. (Presumably in LaHaye's theology these are two distinct trumpets, but that's another issue for another time.) An event heralded by a trumpet blast is not a secret.

What's more, the larger passage clearly indicates (verse 42) that this is the resurrection of the dead -- not a secret snatching away of the faithful. The passage ends with the promise, "Death has been swallowed up in victory." In LaHaye's theology, the rapture marks the beginning of seven years of tribulation -- hardly a time for a victory celebration.

No rapture yet, and we've only got one verse left.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Surely, if the rapture is taught anywhere is scripture, it is taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The very word rapture comes from the Latin translation of harpazo ("caught up") in verse 17.

Unfortunately for Tim LaHaye and other rapture proponents, this passage suffers from the same problems as 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. The phrase, "with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet," hardly sounds like the way to keep a secret. But then there it is: "we... will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever." So the Bible does teach the rapture after all.

Or does it?

If Christ is returning to earth, and believers meet him to "be with the Lord forever," then regardless of what it means to be caught up in the clouds, the believers must be planning to return to the earth with Christ.

There's more. Bible scholar Barbara Rossing puts it this way:

Paul's description of "meeting" the Lord in the air employs a very specific Greek word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times: apantesis, a practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then accompanied him into their city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids who go out to "meet" the bridegroom and then accompany him into the feast, and also in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who go out to "meet" Paul as he arrives in their city.

- Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed p. 176

In both Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15, those who "meet" the arriving person then turn around and escort him to their home. So 1 Thessalonians 4:17 ought to be understood in the sense of believers leaping up into the clouds -- perhaps in ecstasy at his return -- to welcome Christ and accompany him back to earth.

Here's how Orthodox archbishop John Chrysostom put it:

If He is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain within. We are carried upon the chariot of our Father. For He received Him up in the clouds, and “we shall be caught up in the clouds.” (Acts i. 9.) Seest thou how great is the honor? and as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him.

- John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Thessalonians, Homily #8

Chrysostom clearly understood this passage to refer to a king returning to a city to pass judgment. To those "who are in honor," the king's visit is a happy occasion, but to those who are condemned, it is a somber one. There is no need to invent a second return of Christ: The same occasion can seem very different to people who have different perspectives.

John Chrysostom understood the New Testament in a way that Timothy LaHaye -- or you and I -- never could. LaHaye may have studied NT Greek in seminary, but Chrysostom learned it as an infant. As a native speaker of ancient Greek, Chrysostom -- like the other leaders of the early church -- was more in tune with the thought processes of the New Testament writers than we will ever be. And not one of the ancient Greek-speaking Christians ever suggested that there would be a secret rapture of the faithful before Christ's ultimate return. I'll take their word above a modern self-styled prophet any day.

The Left Behind series has proven to be wildly popular fiction. But personally, I'm not going to get caught up in all that hype.

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